Talking Heads: Elena Langer

The composer talks about her new work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a revival of her opera Four Sisters and how the Russian-born, UK-based composer channels her feelings on the conflict in Ukraine.

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana is in conversation with composer Elena Langer. Born in Russia but moving to study in this country two decades ago, she is full of anticipation at the weekend she has coming up. On Saturday 18 March the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, together with soloist Kristina Blaumane, will give the first performance of The Dong With The Luminous Nose, a major new piece for the forces.

Exercise is uppermost in Langer’s mind when we are connected to our call, however. “I’m rehearsing with the chorus tonight”, she says, “and after our call, I’m going to have a swim. I love cold water swimming, and I go to Hampstead Heath, where there is a well-known ladies’ pool.” Given the temperature on the day we talk is a little above freezing, this is a brave move. “Yes, it’s cold – but it will be a quick swim, and it gives you a kick for the rest of the day. It means I will be nice and well-behaved with the chorus!”

As you will have gathered, Elena has a healthy sense of humour, and a zest for life too. The primary reason for our conversation is to talk about a major new choral piece receiving its world premiere in the Royal Festival Hall soon. The Dong With The Luminous Nose is a setting of a nonsense poem by Edward Lear (illustrated below), though as we quickly establish it is a work of several layers. “It’s not nonsense as such, it is a love story”, she explains. “The Dong is broken hearted, and went mad – but it’s told in the right way.”

She recalls her first encounter with the poem, “maybe about 10 years ago. A journalist friend introduced me to it, and I really liked it – and then forgot about it. Then at the right time I remembered, because when I was asked to write this piece for chorus and orchestra I found it difficult to find the right text. Often composers set religious texts that don’t resonate, and I love setting poems, but poems for the chorus quite often feel wrong – the words never quite come across as they should. With The Dong it is a poem, but it’s a little opera for chorus. It tells a story, and you follow it, and it felt like the perfect vehicle for the task.”

The opening lines of The Dong set a telling scene: “When awful darkness and silence reign over the great Gromboolian plain”. Elena reveals how she set them to music. “I started with a big solo cello, a concentrated line. The cello represents the Dong or his longing, his soul. She is playing that solo, and that tells the story in music from beginning to end. Then the music continues in the very low registers of the orchestra, tremolo – and tam-tam, with low bassoon and trombones, low double basses too. I only used the basses in the beginning and introduce the timbres of the chorus gradually. The story is told by the basses, and then the tenors, who begin on the word ‘light’, and then all the female chorus only appears when it says “The Dong, The Dong”. We are introduced to every layer of the piece gradually, because there are lots of layers, all with the big chorus and the cello.”

With so many forces at her disposal, is it tempting to use them too much? “I have them and I like using everything a lot, but obviously it should make sense. The cello tells the story and follows the climaxes and moods of the text. It’s a strange genre – a cantata on one hand, but at the same time it’s a cello concerto because sometimes the cello is in competition with the chorus or the orchestra, and there are some instrumental bits which make it slightly symphonic.”

Rather than copy established formats, Elena has sought an original approach. “I tend to not think about what genre I’m writing in, like making new film”, she explains. “It’s not a romantic comedy, or a drama – it has everything – a bit like a good salad! This approach runs through my operatic work, when you have these resources and you use them as tools to make the drama and to have an effect on the audience. I want to tell the story as precisely as I can with my resources.”

The cello part is written for Langer’s good friend Kristina Blaumane, principal cello of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s an old friend of over 20 years, and she has this passionate, romantic side to her personality, with big emotions. I hope the cello part does that – it’s quite virtuosic, and it requires this soulful, deep, rich sound, which she has in her instrument. She looks wonderful on stage and tells the story in a dramatic way!”

Delving deeper into the story itself, the title – The Dong With The Luminous Nose – brings up a parallel with the young Shostakovich, and his first satirical opera The Nose. Would the story have appealed to him, possibly? “The plot is the opposite, as the nose disappears”, points out Langer, “so you have two noses! But you’re right, I love this in Russian literature where you get this fantastical thing which comes from Gogol, and runs through the work of Daniil Kharms, a Leningrad poet who behaved in a very eccentric way, and who I’m sure was influenced by the English tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It’s fantastical and surreal, but at the same time dramatic and real. All kinds of political, horrible things are happening around us, and I don’t feel like the kind of artist who comments directly on direct events.”

Elena qualifies her observation. “My survival technique is escapism, using music as something that when I write I am in control of my notes. I build this world, but I’m not in control of the rest of the world. The events – the real events – seem like a dream. In a way it’s my lament, to comprehend the world and what’s happening, done through this crazy little creature The Dong, who goes mad and loses what’s important to him.”

Inevitably, talk turns to the conflict in Ukraine. Elena may have lived in the UK for over 20 years, but the links are still strong. “I love being here, and I am in some way detached, but in some way not. I still have friends in both places, but I don’t want to run around with flags. I want to express how I feel in my own way.”

Langer’s music is indeed deeply expressive, as attendees to the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently, will attest. Soprano Anna Dennis, oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist John Reid gave a moving performance of her song Stay, Oh Sweet. It confirmed Langer’s intensely vocal approach to composition – even when writing for voices. “Yes, I think so”, she agrees, “and my cello writing for Kristina proves that. I see every instrument of the orchestra as a voice, rather than some composers who work the other way round.”

Coincidentally, on the night The Dong receives its premiere, Langer’s one-act opera Four Sisters will be performed in a new production by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. It is part of an appealing program, the 2012 opera paired with César Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague.

“It should be fun!” she says with amusing understatement. “Four Sisters was commissioned 12 years ago by Dawn Upshaw, who had a class at Bard College in the Fisher Arts Centre, in upstate New York. They have a conservatoire there, and Dawn had a nice class there, mostly of girls. She asked me to write something that would involve more girls, as they needed parts for everyone. I thought of a funny mix of Three Sisters by Chekhov and something like Sex And The City! Each part is equal, there are no prima donnas!”

Langer studied briefly with Upshaw, but the pair’s connection goes back still further. “In 2009 I was invited to participate in the project writing for Carnegie Hall writing songs with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinian-American composer. I spent a week or more with Dawn and some singers, and she liked my work – hence the commission. She is a very good teacher, she teaches to sing and to understand what you are doing, what you are thinking about – not just the notes.”

Elena does not sing herself. “Oh no, I have a terrible voice!” she laughs. “I can play on the piano and play my pieces if I need to show them to directors or to performers, but never singing!”

On her arrival in the UK from Moscow, Langer spent one year studying with Julian Anderson, and then moved to the Royal Academy of Music for her PhD. “I saw Simon Bainbridge there, and he was very encouraging, a pleasant presence. That’s also where I met Anna Dennis, who has been my muse since then. When I write for sopranos, I have her timbre in my ears. She is very versatile, and a good musician too. She can play cello and piano.”

After the recent flurry of activity, “like a wave”, Langer is planning to take a short break. “I wanted to have a short break to stop the conveyor”, she says, as I have only just finished the arrangement that we made of Stay My Sweet for the awards. It was originally written for string trio, harpsichord and voice, and I arranged it for voice, oboe and piano. The original is recorded on Harmonia Mundi.”

Her musical thoughts are still active, mind. “It is my week off, but I’m already thinking about a Trumpet Concerto! I was working in November, and had a fantastic concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who were doing a suite from my opera Figaro Gets A Divorce. They have a fantastic, very bright brass sound, polished and very smart. Their trumpeter asked me if it is possible to write a Trumpet Concerto for him and the chamber orchestra, so I agreed – and now I imagine a kind of quasi-Baroque piece, bright and energetic. I will probably write that next.”

Is the Baroque period an inspiration for her work? “It’s one of the colours which I have. My taste, as you can probably tell from my music, is very eclectic. I like all kinds of music, like Baroque and Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss, Wagner and Handel. I get excited by music! The Baroque period I like, and have written a lot for harpsichord and oboe, partly because Anna has sung a lot of Baroque music. I have been commissioned through her – and soon in Aldeburgh, at Snape, they will perform another of my compositions, Love and Endings. They are three songs based on Middle English poems, and they’re written for Anna, Mahan Esfahani and Nick Daniel. It’s going to be performed at Easter.”

She is intrigued by Esfahani’s approach. “It’s going to be the first time that I work with him. While I was writing the new songs, I went to Oxford to visit his harpsichord, and I played the instrument which was specially built for him. It is much more resonant than your normal Baroque instrument, and has more notes. It has a very thick and groovy bass!”

As well as the wide range of classical music above, Langer also encounters pop music through her son. “He’s 17, and sometimes when he’s in a good mood he shares some music that he listens to. I love a lot of it, rap and RnB. He played something that was a crossover between Muslim prayer, and rap, and something else, made in East London. I like this kind of thing, and also older jazz from the 1920s to 1950s. My favourites are Ella, Miles Davis, Coltrane and my favourite, Oscar Peterson.”

Returning to her own compositions, a glance at Langer’s list of works on her website reveals that The Dong has the biggest orchestral group she has used so far. “I’ve never used chorus and orchestra like this, it’s the first time, other than in my operas. I was a bit worried about it, as it’s completely different.”

She will hear the piece in full two days before the concert, “but tonight I’ll rehearse with the chorus. We are rehearsing in bits, to give the chorus more time to prepare – and then Kristina will join the chorus, and only then will we have everyone. I hope it works!”

She laughs, nervously – but also modestly. “This whole thing, you spend so much time orchestrating, doing the parts and this and that, and you just hope it sounds right!” With experience, she is less often surprised by the results. “The older I get, the more close it is to the initial idea. I think it’s a part of being a bit more skilful, although when I studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire some of our teachers would say we must take risks and write something where we don’t know what the sound will be. I don’t want that, as I have a vision. I want it to be like a well-built house, it should not have anything unpredictable.”

The Dong With A Luminous Nose will receive its world premiere on Saturday 18 March at the Royal Festival Hall. For ticket information and purchase, visit the London Philharmonic Orchestra website. Meanwhile you can find information about the performance of Four Sisters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland website

Arcana at the opera: Margot la Rouge & Le Villi @ Opera Holland Park

Margot la Rouge (1902)
Lyric Drama in One Act – music by Frederick Delius; Libretto by Rosenval
Sung in French with English surtitles

Margot – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Sergeant Thibaud – Samuel Sakker (tenor), L’Artiste – Paul Carey Jones (bass-baritone), Lili Béguin – Sarah Minns (soprano), Nini – Laura Lolita Perešivana (soprano), La Patronne – Laura Woods (mezzo-soprano), Totor – David Woloszko (bass)

Le Villi (1883)
Opera-Ballet in Two Acts – music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Ferdinando Fontana
Sung in Italian with English surtitles

Anna – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Roberto – Peter Auty (tenor), Guglielmo – Stephen Gadd (baritone)

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director), takis (designer), Jake Wiltshire (lighting), Jami Read-Quarrel (movement)
Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia / Francesco Cilluffo

Opera Holland Park, London
Thursday 21st July 2022 [7.30pm]

review by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Ali Wright

Delius and Puccini are unlikely operatic bedfellows (as anyone who recalls a near-disastrous ENO staging of Fennimore and Gerda with Gianni Schicchi three decades back will surely concur), but this double-bill by Opera Holland Park has an undeniable logic given both works started out as entries in the competition for one-act operas held on four occasions by Edoardo Sonzogno to encourage young talent (so gaining the upper hand against his established rival Ricordi). That neither proved successful at the time need not detract from the merits of either and if the concept of the one is, with hindsight, as uncharacteristic as that of the other appears immature, both contain more than enough worthwhile music along with arresting stagecraft to vindicate their revival in an imaginative production such as they receive on this occasion.

At the time he finished Margot la Rouge, Delius already had four operas behind him so was hardly unequipped for the task at hand. The challenge lay rather in adapting his increasingly personal, even metaphysical approach to the hard-hitting realism – not abetted by a libretto (written pseudonymously by Berthe Gaston-Danville) which reduces its characterization to stereotypes throughout. Yet the best of Delius’s music rises well above any one-dimensional sordidness – the plaintiveness of its prelude and mounting eloquence of its love scene (both refashioned as the Prelude and Idyll which was the composer’s final collaboration with Eric Fenby) equal to anything from his maturity. Had one or another of those earlier operas been acclaimed, the chances for Margot to reach the stage would have been appreciably greater.

The simple but effective revolving set favoured by Martin Lloyd-Evans presents this drama the more effectively for its unfussiness, enhanced by takis’s set designs and Jake Wiltshire’s resourceful lighting. Casting-wise the stage is dominated, as it needs to be, by Anne Sophie Duprels’s assumption of the title-role – emotionally guarded in its earlier sullenness, before ascending to heights of rapture once her identity becomes known. Samuel Sakker evinces the necessary ardency as Thibault and though Paul Carey Jones is a little too suave to convey the viciousness of The Artist, his commanding presence is never in doubt. Sarah Minns has just the right coquettishness as Lili, while there are telling cameos from Laura Lolita Perešvana, Laura Woods and, especially, David Woloszko among those (too?) numerous smaller roles.

Whereas Delius’s opera had to wait 82 years for its premiere, Puccini’s Le Villi hit the stage within a year of completion then was revived twice before the end of the decade – by which time, this ‘opera-ballet’ had expanded to two acts. Therein lies the problem, as Ferdinando Fontana’s modish libretto seems stretched beyond its effectiveness as drama, the threadbare nature in much of the latter scenario requiring a narrative element merely to hold it together. That said, there are various opportunities for characterizing the three protagonists of which Puccini made the most, with the central symphonic intermezzo L’abbandono e La tregenda (the latter still heard as an encore) confirming a new orchestral sophistication in Italian opera. Theatrically flawed as it may be, Le Villi is an auspicious and undeniable statement of intent.

Here, too, the Lloyd-Evans-takis-Wiltshire staging works to the advantage of this drama, yet without over-egging the supernatural shenanigans; credit, also, to Jami Reid-Quarrell for his utilizing the relatively restricted stage-space such that the dance element seems both alluring and more than compensates for the flailing narrative. Vocally, Anne Sophie Duprels has the measure of Anna as she traverses the gamut of emotions from diffidence, through heartbreak to revenge, with a continuity of expression not to be taken for granted. Peter Auty has made a speciality of high tenor roles, but his Roberto needs greater fervency and warmth to offset its shrillness. Not so Stephen Gadd, whose Guglielmo has a burnished humanity that commands attention on his (too few?) appearances and a clarity ideally suited to delivering the narrative.

The latter opera also gains from a typically lusty contribution by Opera Holland Park Chorus – and, in both works, the City of London Sinfonia responds with commitment to the dynamic direction of Francesco Cilluffo, who teases out the many dramatic nuances with alacrity. The orchestral reductions by Andreas Luca Beraldo have been judiciously gauged in both cases -that for Margot ironically closer to the orchestration undertaken by Eric Fenby in the absence of Delius’s score and which was soon mothballed once the original had been relocated. The relative unfamiliarity of these operas is a coup such as OHP has regularly delivered over the years, and one which is well worth the attention of more than just those drawn to rare opera.

Further performances take place on 29 July, 31 July [2pm], 2, 4 and 6 August. For more information visit the Opera Holland Park website

Talking Heads: Roxanna Panufnik on her new opera Dalia

Garsington Opera has had a brilliant summer. With stellar reviews for its productions of Orfeo, Così fan tutte, Rusalka and The Turn of the Screw, the festival has further cemented its status as an unmissable part of the British classical music calendar. And yet there is one more ace up the sleeve in the form of Dalia, a community cricket opera from composer Roxanna Panufnik and librettist Jessica Duchen about a Syrian girl who triumphs over adversity to follow her dream. The opera engages local participants of all ages from diverse backgrounds, including choirs from Syria and Palestine.

The parallels between opera and the most English of sports are surprisingly logical. Test cricket, it could be argued, becomes a four act drama – one for each innings – while the relatively recent phenomenon of 20-20 cricket pivots effortlessly to a pacey, two-act thriller. For some reason composers have tended to shy away from the stumps in creating works with bat and ball, but under Panufnik’s guidance Dalia strides confidently out to bat. As the composer arrives at the batting crease to receive an over of questions from Arcana (enough cricketing puns! – Ed) she takes up the story of what is by all accounts an amazing project.

“Thank you”, she says modestly, “and without wanting to sound too egotistical, I agree! It’s grown so much, beyond what we could have imagined with this involvement from with the choirs from Syria and Palestine. It’s just been extraordinary. We never dreamed it would reach the parts that is already has.”

This is not the first time Panufnik and Duchen have worked together on the Garsington stage and pit. “These are always large affairs”, says the composer, “and for the last one we did, Silver Birch, there were 180 people on stage! It was always going to be big, because if you’re going to do something that’s all inclusive, then it’s got to be inclusive for all. That’s the principle behind it.”

The issues at the heart of Dalia (above) could hardly be more relevant to today’s world. “When it was commissioned, and the concept evolved two years ago, there was a refugee crisis but now it has been hugely magnified, with Afghanistan and Ukraine. It just seems even more relevant.”

The collaboration with Jessica Duchen was a natural fit. “Jess and I are old, old friends, possibly reaching 30 years!” she says warmly. “We’ve done lots together. She’s not just my opera librettist, I can count on her for translations of poetic text too. She is very much my writing partner, although she has done other operas for Garsington. This is only my second but she has a fourth on the way I think. That’s another thing that’s mushroomed!”

Rehearsing with the choirs began on Zoom. “I wasn’t involved with the early rehearsals, they were led by our director Karen Gillingham”, she explains. “I haven’t been directly involved in rehearsing them, but the initial contact with the Amwaj Choir in Palestine came from a friend of mine who runs the Bethlehem Culture Festival,  which has just had its second season in London. She was saying that I must hear this choir, and was there anything they could do? It couldn’t be more perfect, and I had an arrangement of Dalia’s main song, which I distilled for them. In the opera it is spread out over various parts, but they performed it absolutely beautifully! They were rehearsed by their music directors in Palestine, and they sent me an edit, but other than commenting on balance my input was minimal. It’s really wonderful what they came up with.”

The musical language of Dalia’s Song is striking and moving, an indication of the composer’s aim to bring forward the positive identifying aspects of faith and culture. “The principle behind a lot of the multi-faith and multicultural work that I’ve done over the last 20 years or so has been that whenever we hear about these other cultures or these faiths it’s usually in the context of conflict, especially on the news and in social media. I’ve really been on a mission to show that there are such beautiful aspects of these cultures and faiths and so much that we have in common. I think it’s really, really important to keep reminding people of that.”

As a lighter aside, could this be the first ever opera we about cricket? “Well, as my husband says, and he is a cricket lover – cricket is an opera!” She reveals several first-hand inspirations from the England touring party. “I have had fantastic help and support from a couple of members of the Barmy Army, including Billy the trumpeter. He let me use his mariachi motif in the cricket song and dance number. The pianist Anna Tillbrook is also a Barmy Army member, and she has been brilliant – and another person who has been a key consultant is the BBC cricket commentator Eleanor Oldroyd. She was very involved in the libretto with Jess. She lives near me, and we became great friends a few years ago. She has been very involved in making sure we have all the right terminology and that the cricket action scenes make sense and are all correct.”

Roxanna relished the challenges of writing for the assembled forces. “Every commission that I fulfill, whether it’s for people that are 100% professional and very experienced or if it’s for amateurs, is absolutely tailor made for the people that I’m writing it for. I’ve done an opera for Garsington before, and so I had an idea of the community and youth elements here. Throughout the piece, and I do this with every commission, I send sketches and MIDI files to the people I’m writing for, for constant input and collaboration. That way there are no nasty surprises at the end, and everybody knows that they’re getting something that they are not going to be struggling with.”

Panufnik was not beyond stretching her performers, however. “Having said that, it is a little bit challenging for our community chorus, but when I did that for Silver Birch they rose magnificently to the challenge. We also have these incredible people training them, fantastic coaches who are so talented. It’s a great position to be in. Lea Cornthwaite, who’s coaching the chorus made MIDI files of all the parts, so everybody had stuff to listen to and learn before they actually come to rehearsal.

The effect on the performers is clear from the video. “It is, and it has been emotional for me too. Sometimes I think, “What am I doing with my career; am I doing anything remotely useful? It feels like navel gazing, but when you see the effect on people who are either moved by it or who gain confidence through doing this it’s really gratifying. I’m really grateful to be able to do that. I also hope it will give the performers confidence to try other things they wouldn’t normally do. They might say, “I didn’t know anything about opera, but I went for it and succeeded. So let’s have a go at this!”

It was important for Panufnik to integrate Syrian modes into her musical language. “Dalia’s Song is actually a very well known Syrian folk song, Hal Asmar Ellon. Most of the people in the Palestinian and Syrian choirs knew that tune, and it immediately gave them something to sit between this completely new musical experience and what they know. That mode really influenced the rest of the piece. It was the first song I wrote in the opera, and everything grew out of that.”

Roxanna herself has had a varied musical upbringing, well beyond that handed down to her as daughter of the Polish composer Sir Andrezj Panufnik, who took up British citizenship in the 1950s. “I’ve always loved Middle Eastern music, South Asian music and African music”, she explains. “I did one of those ancestral DNA tests, and discovered that I am actually 1% Egyptian, which explains my love of that kind of music. The test also said I had 1.8% from the Levant region, which is probably through my mother’s Jewish heritage. I also love Balkan music, and I have Balkan DNA as well. I’m a bit of a musical nomad!”

It is gratifying to see her channelling this unique DNA and those influences into a stage work. “The thing about this opera and the people is that I think it’s a good reflection of the cultural mix in the UK today. I think it’s really important that we mirror that.” The opera addresses racism, too. “There is no shying away from that.”

With the current plight of Ukraine, it feels valuable to have such a vivid reminder of the plight of Afghanistan and Syria too. “I am very worried”, she confesses. “It was amazing, the outpouring of sympathy for Afghans fleeing Afghanistan last August, and for Ukraine now, but I worry that people are forgetting that there are still something like 11,500 Afghans here still waiting to be housed, and languishing as one family to one hotel room. I would really want that to be visible still.”

Panufnik is a busy composer. “I’m very excited that having written so much in the last 20 years for Christian worship, I’m just finishing off a commission for the Liberal Jewish synagogue, a piece for their Yom Kippur service in October, so that’s my first Jewish liturgical commission. I’m also writing a piano piece which will take its inspiration from Iraqi Jewish music, for the pianist Margaret Fingerhut. The Jewish stuff is coming up quite a bit. Although I’m a practising Catholic, because my mother is Jewish I am technically Jewish, and feel those roots very strongly. I’m really excited about that.”

How refreshing it is to have a positive discussion about religion. “It’s great to be talking about religion, like you say, in a celebratory way rather than talking about conflicts. I’m sure one of the biggest things about religion is being mindful of other people’s beliefs, isn’t it? It’s just nice to be thinking about that, and also being aware of all the things we have in common. During Lent, I remember some lovely nun friends who suggested taking something up rather than stopping anything. Thanks to their inspiration I took up reading scriptures from other faiths. Last year I read the Quran, and this Lent I’ve read the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. It’s so exciting to see how much there is in common with our faith, in the moral principles especially. I find it incredibly uplifting, and I want other people to be aware of that, which is why I try and put it in my work.”

Panufnik’s eclecticism as a composer is illustrated by her recent projects, including a commission from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Youth Chorus. “I took a piece of my father’s, the Five Polish Peasant Songs, for unison upper voices and a few wind instruments, and I orchestrated it with some new translations of the words. They’re funny folk tales, with little twists, all based on Polish folk songs. Then just recently I have had the premiere of a new work (God’s Mirror) in Bath Abbey, which they commissioned for the 25th anniversary of their Girls Choir. Then there is the premiere of the new piece I wrote for Margaret Fingerhut, Babylonia, at Ryedale Festival on 20 July.“ After that, of course, the baton – or should we say, cricket ball – passes to Dalia.

Dalia looks set to be a wonderfully uplifting and thought provoking work for Garsington, not to mention an important milestone in the careers of its performers. More details on the work and its performances, which take place at 7.30pm on 28, 30 and 31 July (which includes a 3pm matinee), can be found at the Garsington Opera website, while to book directly click here

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Respighi & Dallapiccola

Respighi Vetrate di Chiesa (1925-6)
Dallapiccola Il prigioniero (1944-8) {Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ángeles Blancas Gulín (soprano – Mother), Eric Greene (baritone – Prisoner), Stefano Secco (tenor – Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor), Egor Zhuravskii (tenor – First Priest), Chuma Sijeqa (bass-baritone – Second Priest), London Symphony Chorus, Guildhall School Singers, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Barbican Hall, London

Sunday 5 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Pictures (c) Mark Allan Photography

This second of the London Symphony Orchestra’s two concerts of Italian music with chief conductor designate Sir Antonio Pappano consisted of two pieces that brought the aesthetic and political divisions of Italy between the world wars into acute while always productive focus.

It might have originated in piano pieces written for his wife, but Respighi’s Church Windows duly emerged among the most opulent and evocative of his orchestral works. That both title and subtitles were postpriori additions does not lessen their relevance – not least as concerns The Flight into Egypt, its tense understatement a telling foil to the ensuing Saint Michael the Archangel with its warlike images rendered graphically by brass and percussion, before climaxing in one of the most theatrical of tam-tam crashes as Satan is banished from Heaven.

Not that Respighi was averse to gentler expression as appropriate, The Matins of Saint Clare featuring orchestration of unfailing finesse on its raptly expressive course. Inevitably, it is the magisterial finale of Saint Gregory the Great when this composer comes most fully into his own – its cumulative fervour drawing on all aspects of the sizable forces for what becomes a heady apotheosis. Music, indeed, that needs to be realized with discipline and focus to avoid overkill, which was certainly the case in a performance where the LSO left nothing to chance.

The London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano perform Ottorino Respighi Church Windows Luigi Dallapiccola Il prigioniero In the Barbican Hall (Ángeles Blancas Gulin Mother, Eric Greene Prisoner, Stefano Secco Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor, Egor Zhuravskii First priest, Chuma Sijeqa Second priest ) on Friday, 3 June 2022. Photo by Mark Allan

Whereas Respighi pays (indirect) tribute to Italy’s cultural greatness, Dallapiccola exposes its darker recesses in his one-act opera The Prisoner. Composed over several years that span the decline and fall of Mussolini’s Italian empire, its libretto is drawn from the novel by the late 19th century author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam whose title Torture by Hope became subtitle for this opera by intimating the culmination of a scenario set during one of the grimmest periods in the Spanish Inquisition. By this time, Dallapiccola had evolved that distinctively personal brand of serialism which served him thereafter, but his knowledge of and devotion to Italian opera meant that those more methodical or systematic aspects are harnessed to an emotional fervour as makes for a consistently powerful and often moving while harrowing experience.

The performance was a compulsive one – centred upon Eric Greene’s assumption of the title-role that built gradually to an apex of elation suddenly and cruelly denied. The opening stage is dominated by the Mother – rendered with unfailing charisma yet never wanton melodrama by Ángeles Blancas Gulín, and Stefano Secco brought hardly less conviction to the twin-role of the Gaoler whose urgings to remain steadfast assume a chilling tone when he is revealed as the Grand Inquisitor. There were telling cameos from Egor Zhuruvskii and Chuma Sijeqa as the Priests, with the London Symphony Chorus and Guildhall School Singers combining to potent effect in offstage Psalm settings – the final one a climax of sombre grandeur. Pappano directed with absolute assurance an opera he doubtless, and rightly so, ranks with the finest.

It brought this enterprising and superbly executed concert to an impressive close. One only hopes Pappano will have the opportunity to programme further such music over the coming seasons: the enthusiastic response suggested an almost full house would be there it hear it.

To read more on the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, visit their website. For more information on the artists involved, click on the names for Antonio Pappano, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Eric Greene, Stefano Secco, Egor Zhuravskii and Chuma Sijega

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


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