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Katya and the Vixen: Janacek at the ROH and ENO [Mar. 22nd, 2010|02:05 pm]
Michael Church

Orchestrally speaking, Janacek is bringing out the best in our big opera houses. While Sir Charles Mackerras gallantly triumphs over age and infirmity to conduct a coruscating performance of ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ at Covent Garden, Mark Wigglesworth extracts more pliant beauty from the Coliseum band than any other conductor has in recent memory.

 

Dramatically, things are more variable. It was rotten luck for Covent Garden that Emma Bell, whose Fox was eagerly awaited, should have been taken ill a day before curtain-up, leaving Elisabeth Meister - a soprano on the Jette Parker scheme - to vault into this exposed position from a minor part as the Rooster: she did as well as could reasonably have been expected. But in this opera’s beguiling hubbub, where children’s voices mingle with those of adults, it didn’t matter hugely that Emma Matthews as Vixen Sharp-Ears didn’t vocally impose herself; what counted far more was the wonderful singing of that genial giant Matthew Rose as the Poacher, and of Christopher Maltman as the Forester. The grave beauty of Maltman’s closing monologue cast a retrospective glow on everything that had gone before. Castigate Bill Bryden’s production as showbizzy if you will, but for me, as for many others, this aerial extravaganza, with its vast turning wheels suggesting the cycle of the seasons, is an inspired expression of this work’s intricate, child’s-eye truthfulness. I still remember David Pountney’s version for ENO is the Eighties - with its quieter bucolic charm - but this show is a winner.

 

Over at the Coliseum, David Alden’s realisation of Janacek’s ‘Katya Kabanova’ misfires from the start, as the curtain rises on a peasant woman peeling potatoes in front of an unpainted and flamboyantly skewed plywood set on Alden’s trademark raked stage: corny Slav realism meets corny agit-prop modishness. As with his production of Janacek’s ‘Jenufa’, Alden updates this nineteenth-century village tragedy to the Soviet Twenties, and as before, the suffocatingly condemnatory atmosphere of a God-fearing little society - essential if the drama is to work - is lost. Adultery to the Bolsheviks was no big deal, and the agit-prop hoarding showing a devil pitchforking malefactors down to hell is oxymoronic in the strict sense of the word.

     

The plot turns on the fact that Katya is on the verge of a breakdown, trapped in her loveless marriage, yearning for someone else, and prey to Ophelia-like delusions which intensify as she moves towards her Ophelia-like demise. Apart from one superb moment when the whole world seems to go into a convulsion of communal angst - with the storm hitting the village and people being hurled about - this staging is the complete antithesis to the Expressionist classic devised by the late Maria Bjornson for Covent Garden. Here, huge shadows are projected, to no obvious purpose. The leitmotif river is sometimes in the pit, sometimes backstage, and Katya’s athletic run-and-jump into it is pure cod-Tosca. When the hoarding is ostentatiously lowered face-down into the middle of the stage, it stays there for the rest of the evening, pulley and all, just getting in everyone’s way. Why is the household icon boldly displayed, when Soviet rules would have forced the family to hide it in the attic? Why is the lovely counterpoint between the happy lovers and the doomed ones destroyed by making the latter muffled and out of view? And above all, why does this Katya - undeniably well sung by the American soprano Patricia Raclette - come across as so insufferably confident and composed?

 

The evening’s saving grace lies in the rest of the singing. Susan Bickley’s Kabanicha is as steely as one could wish, while Stuart Skelton’s Boris projects grave despair, and John Graham-Hall’s castrated Tikhon is a creature forged in hell. But the stars of the evening are Anna Grevelius and Alfie Boe, as Varvara and Vanya: one couldn’t imagine a more spirited pair of young lovers, or a sweeter vocal match.

 

 

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Tracey Emin rule ok [Mar. 16th, 2010|02:31 pm]
Michael Church
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A few blogs ago, I ruffled some fine-art feathers by suggesting that Anish Kapoor was a fraud. I recommended that readers should catch an interview he had given on BBC World, in which the bogusness of London’s fine-art scene was gloriously laid bare. Having just watched Tracey Emin interviewed on BBC Four by the indulgently uncritical Mark Lawson, I now recommend - at the risk of ruffling more feathers - that people should catch this revelatory programme while it’s available on Freeview. Because if you ever wanted to get inside the YBA mindset (beautifully pilloried in the current Private Eye), this show - preferably laced with a pleasantly stiff whisky - is for you.

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English Touring Opera goes back on tour [Mar. 10th, 2010|02:49 pm]
Michael Church
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One of the most dependable pleasures of the operatic year comes when English Touring Opera unpacks its goodies at the start of a new season. You know everything will be pared down for travel, with visibly portable sets, but you also know that whatever it’s doing will reflect an original take. I will never forget what they did with Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’. Read more...Collapse )
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Podles trumps Mehta at the Wigmore, while Cerha springs a surprise [Dec. 30th, 2009|06:28 pm]
Michael Church
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Bejun Mehta’'s first 41 years make an interesting story. The son of two musicians, and a nephew of Zubin Mehta, he first found fame - and accolades from Leonard Bernstein - as a boy soprano. After the break he tried unsuccessfully to make it as a baritone, then as a cellist, before being inspired by the example of David Daniels to try his luck as a counter-tenor, and lo! He’s now a counter-tenor star in his own right. He may be sought-after for Handel and Britten - he made a strikingly evil Oberon in the Glyndebourne ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ - but his Wigmore debut suggests that as a recitalist he’s still got some way to go. He has a beautiful, bell-like sound, but it’s not based on speech, and it comes out unvaryingly, whatever he’s singing about. On the operatic stage, he can get right inside his part (despite hilariously chaotic coloratura), but in recital he completely fails to characterise each song as required.


He could learn a thing or two from the great Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who took the same stage a week later. Last time round - in a concert now enshrined on a WigmoreLive Cd - she and her pianist Garrick Ohlsson (a virtuoso in his own right) regaled their fans with songs by Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky. This time they did Musorgsky, Haydn, and the little-known Polish composer Mieceslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909), for whom Podles carries a torch. Whether he would have emerged as a major composer if he hadn’t been swept away by an avalanche at 33, I’m not sure: the piano accompaniments to his songs were more memorable than the voice parts, for all their wistful grace. But the main event - Musorgsky’s ‘The Nursery’ - was electrifying. These songs were Musorgsky’s boldest shot at reflecting the rhythms of everyday speech in music: Podles gave each a unique and irresistible character, by turns comic, sad, and surreal. Her sound is huge, yet her coloratura is astonishingly nimble, and she has a seemingly inexhaustible range of colours up her sleeve. The more she sang - finishing with a blast of Rossini as her send-off - the less we wanted to let her go: a life-force.


The following night the Wigmore hosted the Vienna Piano Trio, and note the roster - Wolfgang Redik (violin), Matthias Gredler (cello), and Stefan Mendl (piano) - as these youngish musicians may be names to conjure with in years to come: I have never heard a Haydn piano trio sound so un-sedate, or Brahms’s Opus 87 trio so vivid. Sandwiched between them was a short work of great intriguingness: Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Five Pieces for Piano Trio’ broke the rules of the game by doing away with the piano’s dominion, and letting the subtler sound-worlds of the other two instruments dictate what should happen. Cerha - who once set the cat among the pigeons by daring to complete Berg’s ‘Lulu’ against the dead composer’s wife’s wishes - is with his friend Kurt Schwertsik one of the two leading composers in Austria today. Everything they do is (often quietly) revolutionary, and never less than interesting.
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Brilliance and brainlessness at ENO [Nov. 9th, 2009|02:37 pm]
Michael Church
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To see the revival of David McVicar’s fabulous ‘Turn of the Screw’ (left) is to be reminded just how good English National Opera can be when it sticks to its metier: getting brilliant directors to give tried and trusted classics a new and original twist, with singers who understand how to work as an ensemble. While 84-year-old Charles Mackerras cast a lovely spell from the pit, the cast who bodied-forth Britten’s ghost-story might have been born to their roles. No praise can be too high for Michael Colvin’s sinister Peter Quint, Cheryl Barker’s louring former governess, or Rebecca Evans’ plangent incarnation of the current governess; the boys alternating as Miles - opposite Nazan Fikret’s vividly-imagined Flora - were as good as any I have seen in that precarious role (the treble voice must be strong and pure, with no intimation of the adolescent break to come); Ann Murray, as the housekeeper, carried real authority. Tanya McCullin’s delicate sepia designs haunted the mind long after the last notes have sounded; the moment when Quint literally summons Miss Jessel up out of the earth remains one of the most convincingly spooky I’ve ever seen.

To see Rupert Goold’s version of ‘Turandot’ (right), on the following night, was to be reminded that this company can still, with great deliberation, shoot itself in both feet. Nothing in Goold’s theatrical track record - garlanded with praise for his flashy ‘Enron’ production - had given an indication as to how he would deal with this problematic work, with its melange of sublime music, adolescent emotion, and sheer vulgarity: we were assured his take would be original. It was, but only in the sense that it plumbed depths of crassness never before seen at the Coliseum.

The curtain went up on a Soho - or SoHo - Chinese restaurant, where a Halloween party was in progress containing just about every stereotype known to metropolitan man. Camp queens, jewelled Goths, a trio of Elvises, a Chelsea pensioner, some Hasidic Jews, a NYPD officer, a nun - you name it, it was all in there somewhere. There was also a white-suited Tom Wolfe journo, who was sometimes the invisible chronicler, and sometimes the impresario making things happen; the Emperor was presented as the shambolically-colourful lord of Longleat on a bender; Ping, Pang, and Pong were dolled up as camp cooks with cleavers, sometimes supported by a bevy of dancers with pigs’ heads, and at others by a leggy troupe of mannequins. You got a message: this director doesn’t like women.

You also sensed his desperation to reference everything to topical reality: unsurprisingly this periodically misfired, with some stereotypes being toe-curlingly out of date. Nothing made dramatic sense at any level; the ritualised violence was about as threatening as the violence in ‘The Mikado’. When the journo got inexplicably impaled by Turandot, and scrambled up onto the kitchen range - yes, we were in the servants’ quarters for the final act - to expire bloodily with his notebook falling from lifeless fingers, we got a clumsy reference to the dying Puccini, but so what? Nothing, I repeat, made sense. The whole thing was like having the room invaded by a tiresomely camp friend who is constantly shouting ‘Let’s do the show right here!’, when all you want is to have some sort of conversation.

The sad thing was that in strictly musical terms this was a decent evening. If Kirsten Blanck’s Princess Turandot was efficient rather than inspired, Amanda Echalaz’s Liu was ringingly sung, as was Gwyn Hughes Jones’s noble Calaf; the chorus was in splendid form, and the long trio for Ping, Pang, and Pong was rivetingly delivered under Edward Gardner’s skilful beat. What a waste.

What this show reflects is that most common of failings among would-be cool-dude directors - a total lack of faith in the work itself. When in doubt, let postmodern ‘style’ replace thought, and turn it into a Broadway musical: ‘That’ll draw the crowd!’ Oh really? It will be interesting to see whether ENO has the nerve to revive this brainless travesty.

And so to the long-awaited ENO double bill: Bartok’s ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ in an unusual pairing with Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ - opera and ballet yoked together for once. To direct the former, ENO has drafted in Daniel Kramer, another flashy young theatrical figure - but at least one with a brain. So simple, and so obvious: transpose the castle to a basement in an Austrian suburb, and turn Bluebeard into Josef Fritzl. Why not? Bluebeard’s collection of ghostly victims makes an excellent fit, as does his enjoyment of this secret harem. We meet the Duke - Clive Bayley, possessor of the most wonderfully sepulchral bass - on a dimly-lit street, where he links up with soprano Michaela Martens. Their initial encounter is crudely, almost comically sexual, as she applies her lips to his like a limpet, before being drawn in through his front door.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of designer Giles Cadle’s coups de theatre by describing them: suffice it to say that the eye is as ravished as the ear is by the glorious singing (and the equally glorious playing under Edward Gardner in the pit). Bayley’s Duke is an extraordinary creation, sometimes convulsed with fearful excitement, sometimes dancing about like a delinquent 12-year old. And though his patent lack of sex-appeal makes Martens’ initial attraction inexplicable, he projects a queasy and credible necrophilia. The final tableau is so shocking that the applause takes at least a minute to materialise - and to me it felt crassly over the top, but the rest of Kramer’s Polanskian imaginings are highly persuasive. What we need now is a revival of Willy Decker’s majestic ROH production of this work, with John Macfarlane’s darkly suggestive designs. Kramer’s literalism is ingenious, but ‘Bluebeard’ is better served by something more oblique.

Meanwhile Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ was woefully ill-served by the banal choreography which the Ireland-based Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre chose to plaster over it. We were promised a dance piece which would reinforce the ritual intensity of the music, but what we got instead was a cloudy sequence of events which did precisely the opposite; it might have been a ‘Lord of the Flies’-type story, and then again it might not. A sacrifice of sorts began to unfold at the outset - we were in a park full of young social rejects in a bleak Celtic place - but the whole thing degenerated into undressing, cross-dressing, and much donning of animal masks, with the final sacrifice replaced by what looked like a clumsy piece of social didacticism. Nijinsky’s choreography worked because the music was gloriously transparent through it: this choreography was opaque, while the music - conducted with an odd lack of finesse - blundered irrelevantly along below. Memo to ENO: by all means revive ‘Bluebeard’, but in tandem with something that works.
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Classical music has no Anish Kapoor, thank God! [Oct. 19th, 2009|05:42 pm]
Michael Church
Anyone wanting to take the pulse of the fine-art world in its present state should use the BBC’s watch-again facility to catch Stephen Sackur’s interview with Anish Kapoor in BBC World’s Hard Talk slot. Because in twenty-five delicious minutes this encounter definitively lays bare the vast con-trick which has turned contemporary fine art into a standing joke - at least for those who don’t have a professional or financial stake in it (and perhaps, in a secretly gloating way, for the profiteers as well).

Sackur may be good on the Middle East, but there’s no softer touch than a hard-news journalist who ventures into fashionable culture. And it was clear from the outset that this one had bought Kapoor’s expensive publicity, hook, line, and sinker: Sackur was a sucker. Running his hands through his perfect silver mane, and with a face positively bloated with self-love and condescension, Kapoor gave the impression of having just enough energy to open his sleepy eyes to answer the BBC man’s gently-lobbed questions. His manner was that of a genial professor leading neophyte students into a maze of his own making: patient, amused, and oh so superior. Sackur, meanwhile, was all wide-eyed eagerness: he doesn’t often get to talk to artists this rich and famous. Did Kapoor see any contradiction, he asked respectfully, between the demands of art and money? ‘We must be adult about money,’ Kapoor purred in reply, after some exquisitely-nuanced prevarications about the successful artist’s ambiguous plight in contemporary society. The well-heeled, feather-bedded Tracey Emin - bleating about our tax laws and running off to France - would doubtless have heartily concurred at this point. How can these people be so full of shit and not know it?

We glimpsed Kapoor’s gigantic oozing red-wax ‘sculpture’ portentously leaving blood on the walls at the Royal Academy; we got the obligatory hushed question about the relevance of the (in this context irrelevant) Holocaust. It emerged that he was actually - gasp! - glad that people should interpret his work in opposing ways. He showed a sublime ignorance of any other artistic world than the one he inhabits, suggesting that never before had spectators brought ideological baggage to their viewing of what they saw - no awareness that, at all times in European history, people have come to public art literally weighed down with ideology - religious, political, or whatever. Sackur’s awe-struck inquiry as to how he found the courage to face the terrifying prospect of a whole day of creative block got a beatifically cosy smile in reply.

But this being ‘Hard Talk’ - and Sackur having a macho image to maintain - we eventually got the killer-question he’d been carefully saving up. Not everybody was an admirer, he said through nervously clenched teeth: what was Kapoor’s comment on Brian Sewell’s typically forthright verdict that he was a total charlatan? Kapoor’s face became wreathed in smiles, and he gave the prettiest little laugh. ‘Poor Brian…’ No, really, coming from such a source, that verdict was a compliment!

If this nauseating own-goal was a perfect encapsulation of contemporary fine-art effrontery, it also served as a reminder that classical music’s commercialisation has a long way to go before it can begin to compete. There are of course plenty of parallels in the way the press and television collude in the big labels' promotional racket. When the boss of Deutsche Grammophon confesses that musical quality alone is not enough to ensure you a place on his roster, and that marketability demands quite other qualities, we know we’re in trouble. Would Nicola Benedetti be the ‘star’ she is without her unprecedented initial advance, her assumed Italian name, and her tumbling golden tresses? Nigel Kennedy’s knack for publicity perennially disguises the fact that as a musician he’s a one-trick pony. Yet both these people can play, and this points to classical music’s saving grace. You don’t need skill or talent to make a fortune as a fine-artist: all you need is nerve, and ars longa, vita brevis doesn’t come into it. But with music - even if you’re only a second-ranker like these two - if you don’t have the basics, you’re rumbled immediately.

(Photos: Reuters)
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ROH’s ‘Don Carlo’ and ENO’s ‘Le grand macabre’ go head to head: ENO wins with a knockout [Sep. 22nd, 2009|03:38 pm]
Michael Church
It’s an unequal battle, given their relative levels of finance, but ENO and the ROH can never escape comparison. There have been times when ENO has been left for dead in the gutter, and times when its feisty performance has outclassed its richer rival. Here they are at it again, simultaneously kicking off their new autumn seasons.
 
When the Royal Opera House unveiled Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ last year, my duty was to review it at speed - a mere hour between curtain-down and delivery for the Independent’s late edition. I found it brilliantly sung, stylishly designed, and politically topical - a rave. So how come I’m underwhelmed by its revival? Some of the new singers may not cut it as the first lot did, but my volte face indicates the limitations inherent in reviewing in the fizz of the moment. ‘Overnight’ reviews are macho, second thoughts are the ones which deserve publishing. 
 
This time round, the sets gave a strong whiff of Shaftesbury Avenue - or rather, with the twee silver forest in the opening scene, and with the principals kicking their errant ‘path’ back into place as they sang, of a Christmas window at Harvey Nichols. Apart from in the memorial chapel scenes, the lighting and colours were hard and flat, pastiche Hockney. The massive crowd scenes were contrived with supreme efficiency, but there was no sense of any underlying emotion. The auto da fe, with its burnings at the stake, was no more threatening than the mob scenes in ‘Les Miserables’. And what idiot techie decreed that the amplified bells which blasted the auditorium should drown the orchestra, even when it was playing full strength?

 
Moreover, when the audience was swept by a gale of unwanted mirth as Princess Eboli (Marianne Cornetti) unveiled herself to a supposedly appalled Don Carlo (Jonas Kaufmann), who had been under the impression she was somebody else, it was clear the chemistry wasn’t working. Cornetti must take the blame for that: mezzo Sonia Ganassi, the original occupant of this tempestuous role, had in this scene chilled us to the marrow. Meanwhile Kaufmann - currently the best lyric tenor around - sang gorgeously, but at no point did he convey, as Rolando Villazon did, the requisite impression of a young man going to pieces before our eyes. 
 
 
Carlo’s derangement has a Hamlet-like cause in that Elisabetta, the young woman he loves, is being forced to marry his father. As before, the young Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya played Elisabetta, and as before I was unmoved: she looks and sounds wonderful, but vulnerability is beyond her. This Elisabetta is emotionally ironclad, even when supposedly singing her heart out to the king who is her unwitting oppressor. But with the great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (left) once again in that role, King Philip saved the day - a hugely commanding presence, conveying as much by his stillness as by his gloriously resonant voice. Presented as a bookish prince of darkness surrounded by the coffins of his ancestors, he is one of Verdi’s most convincingly complex characters, more than half in love with death, but simultaneously locked in his own hopeless battle with his deceased father the Emperor Charles V. As Furlanetto sings it, underscored by its lovely cello solo, the tortured but exquisite soliloquy in which he faces up to his political and sexual impotence becomes the majestic performance Verdi’s great work deserves. Only when this singer commanded the stage - or shared it with that that other big bass, John Tomlinson - did the drama feel remotely believable, but he alone is worth the price of a ticket.
 
Meanwhile, with Gyorgy Ligeti’s absurdist fantasy ‘Le grand macabre’, the Coliseum is hosting the most extraordinary show ever to have graced its stage. Ligeti preferred instruments to the human voice, and this is less an opera than a freaky piece of music theatre, so it made sense to let the world’s freakiest street-theatre group loose on it - La fura dels Baus from Barcelona. In the mad kingdom of Breughel-land, ‘in some century or other’, the inhabitants are persuaded to abandon their fear of death and live for the moment: eat, drink, be merry - and get your end away. The concept which directors Alex Olle and Valentina Carrasco have come up with is blindingly effective: the whole stage is filled with a gigantic female nude - grander than anything dreamed up by Anish Kapoor - out of whose orifices people emerge, and in whose recesses all kinds of mayhem take place. This is both a disintegrating body, and - as fascist elements proliferate - a satirically-viewed body politic. 
 
The ‘drama’ is slapstick stuff, and the humour lavatorial in a quintessentially Seventies way (it premiered in 1978): avant-gardism never stays avant-garde for long. All the performances are over the top, which means that the usually compelling Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is just one of nine people desperately acting their heads off. There is some lovely singing from counter-tenor Andrew Watts as Prince Go-Go, and from sopranos Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone (in flayed-flesh body-stockings) as the busily-humping lovers Amando and Amanda (their original names, Clitoris and Spermando having been supplanted to placate German audiences); there are some ravishing solos from soprano Susanna Andersson doubling up as Venus and the chief of police.  
 
But the real event is the set, which is so mesmerising we never take our eyes off it. This troubled giantess with disturbingly lifelike breasts doesn’t just rotate and gently disintegrate: she morphs into a 3-D skeleton, while her face transforms itself time and again with the speed of a Chinese conjuror. Meanwhile onto her vast body are projected figures from animated Breughel paintings, from Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, or from a mystic Aboriginal ritual; sometimes these projected shapes crystallise into the cast themselves. It’s beautiful, terrible, and thought-provoking. 
 
And that’s the point. The libretto may be by a Belgian, but the whole thing is shot through with the hard-edged Central European surrealism of Kafka and Karel Kapek. And this takes us back to the mind of its creator, who saw most of his family wiped out in Auschwitz, and then had to flee Budapest when the Soviet tanks rolled in in 1956; one of his more unnerving childhood experiences was of turning up to sit an exam in Romanian, only to discover that the political map had changed overnight, and he had to take it in Hungarian. For him, a mad world was normality.
 
 
But the residue left in the mind, as one walks out into the street, is not just visual: it’s also the wondrous patternings on muted strings, and the final nonet, which rings in the ears with an ineffable bucolic sweetness, echoing the ends of ‘Dion Giovanni’, ‘Falstaff’, and Stravinsky’s ‘Rake’s Progress’. Ligeti’s score works its own powerful spell. There are only six more performances, with the last on October 9: don’t miss it.
 
 
Following up this advantage, ENO have put on yet another revival of Jonathan Miller’s Mafia ‘Rigoletto’, premiered in 1982. This production feels as fresh as it did then: the violent world which Miller constructs in the opening scene, and the Hopper-esque café by the waterfront in the finale, have an immediacy which hits you in the gut. This time round it’s Michael Fabiano’s beautifully-sung Duke, Brindley Sherratt’s sepulchral Sparafucile, and Anthony Michaels-Moore’s compelling performance in the title role which carry the day.
 
 There are times when ENO seems to forget the strengths to which it must play: dusting off forgotten gems, and presenting them with a resident troupe whom the audience know and love. This week we got the gem, but not the troupe - and why was the Verdi given to a conductor untried in London? Stephen Lord may be, as the programme unconvincingly shouts, ‘one of the 25 most powerful names in US opera’, but there are plenty of Brits who could have done it better. British jobs for British workers? For once those weasel words fit.
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Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Prom - and the story behind it [Sep. 4th, 2009|06:51 pm]
Michael Church
This year’s penultimate late-night Prom - on September 13 - will see Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble celebrating 10 years of musical discovery and experiment. An inspired project, whose growth and development I described in the Independent on Sunday. But this is just the tip of a far more important iceberg, in the form of the Aga Khan Foundation’s remarkable cultural conservation work spanning the whole of Central Asia, without which Yo-Yo Ma’s project would not exist.

This foundation is currently running a broad package of development projects - ranging from microfinance to music - intended to improve the material and spiritual well-being of the inhabitants of old "Turkestan": this includes all the countries bounded to the north by Kazakhstan and by Afghanistan to the south, most of which are seriously poverty-stricken. When the Soviets arbitrarily carved up the map, they tried to erase ethnic identities, with particularly damaging results for music. Nomadic instruments were "tamed" by being marshalled into orchestras, Sufi chants were proscribed, and shamans - whose flutes and horse-hair fiddles were their professional armoury - were persecuted, sometimes to the point of execution. The region's master-musicians are now being supported in a variety of ways: help with international tours, permanent recognition through Smithsonian Folkways’ superb 10-CD series on Central Asian music, and, most importantly, appointment in a tutorial capacity in one of the new music schools which the AKTC has set up across the region. For more on this, see my article in the March 2009 issue of ‘BBC Music Magazine’. For more on the Aga Khan Foundation, go to www.akdn.org.
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Khyal at the Proms [Aug. 17th, 2009|12:27 pm]
Michael Church
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When the Proms’ annual foray into other musics misfires, it’s usually because the musicians chosen are cross-over folk, keener to ingratiate themselves with a Western audience than to celebrate their own culture. This year’s Indian Voices Day was a welcome exception to the rule: a morning of Khyal, an evening devoted to Bollywood (a sensible piece of populism, given the size of London’s Indian community), and sandwiched between - much blessed by fine weather - a sequence of village song-and-dance groups in Hyde Park.

Khyal means "imagination", and denotes the essentially improvisatory mode which grew out of the codified raga style. It’s both instrumental and vocal, but what we got here was the latter, in contrasting forms by its leading living exponents. Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra spun extraordinary sounds in their local version of scat, more like water in a madly-waving metal drum than ordinary human voices. What was notable about young Manjiri Asnare Kelkar (pictured, centre), on the other hand, was the way that even her most floridly extreme effects - the Indian equivalent to Western coloratura - sounded entirely human. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to cover the whole range from our low contralto to the top of our soprano register - and all in a firm, vibrato-free, and gloriously unforced "chest" voice. Her first song, in the Jaipur gayaki style, was on an oblique but fertile minor scale; her second, which had affinities with Central Asian balladry, and which had sparky support from the harmonium and tabla, was on a beguiling major. Part of her art lay in the hand-gestures with which she accompanied herself, very like the mudras of a bharatnatyam dancer. Let’s hope she comes back soon.

The father-and-daughter act which preceded the khyals was a more muted but no less charming affair, as sarangists Pandit Ram Narayan (and old colleague of Yehudi Menuhin’s) and Aruna Narayan chased each other up and down the scale on their ancient bowed instruments, with never-faltering rhythmic precision.

Anyone wandering into the auditorium might have concluded that the attendance for this concert was disappointing, given the large numbers of empty seats. But as Proms controller Roger Wright likes to point out, a full Royal Albert Hall equals two full Festival Halls, or three full Barbicans, and this was definitely a Barbican and a half - not at all bad, for such a recondite art-form.

(Photo: Getty Images)
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Valery Gergiev's hubris [Jul. 30th, 2009|01:07 pm]
Michael Church
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Having just watched - with mounting disbelief - the first production of Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky ‘Ring’, I am digesting the implications. One is that if his ‘Rheingold’ is an amateurish clunker, the portents are dire for the other productions in his cycle. Since my ‘Rheingold’ review is already on The Independent website, I won’t repeat my unkind judgments here, but a second immediate thought is that many critics failed to appreciate the brilliance of Keith Warner’s Royal Opera House ‘Ring’, when it was unveiled in 2007.

In Bryn Terfel and John Tomlinson we had the best alternating pair of Wotans in the world, but they - plus many other pieces of inspired casting - were only part of the reason for that cycle’s dazzling success. Its greatest strength lay in the way Warner and his team - designer Stefanos Lazaridis, lighting designer Wolfgang Gobbel, and video specialists Mic Pool and Dick Straker, with Antonio Pappano in the pit - imposed their vision, in all its beauty, strangeness, and mystery. I hope the ROH revive it soon, to erase current memories.

But back to Valery Gergiev, who may be riding for a fall. Today’s Guardian carries a forelock-tugging leader "in praise of" him, but even this sounds a note of caution. His workload is extraordinary, says the writer: might this Ring be a self-imposed challenge too far? But never mind, he concludes: ‘his hyperactivity is overwhelmingly his strength’, and it’s not our business to ask him to be different.

But we do have the right to ask whether hubris is taking its toll. Gergiev’s intemperate political interventions over the Russo-Georgian war last year were shamefully tribal-verging-on-racist; his assumption that he can now function like a Diaghilev, acting as producer as well as music director, reinforces the impression that he never questions his own abilities, or his own behaviour. (We will pass over his close personal links with Vladimir Putin.) All this spells danger. Is an alarm-bell now ringing?

(Photo: Getty)

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