Winter’s icy blast at the Wigmore

Snowy Path (Krakow, Poland)

On Saturday, I attended an interesting study day at the Wigmore Hall, entitled Capturing a Moment: the Art of Photographing Music and based around the fantastic career of Clive Barda. If you have anything at all to do with classical music and opera, you’ve seen Barda’s work: he’s probably the foremost photographer of musicians, both on stage (for formal rehearsal photographs, for example) and off stage.

He was charmingly straightforward as he talked about the interpersonal – as opposed to technical – aspects of his photographic art. A film retrospective, directed by Philippe Monnet, was part of the day and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in music and opera.  There’s a Youtube trailer that’s certainly worth a couple of minutes of anyone’s time:

One slight snag with the day was that the Wigmore was a little chilly, which led to an idle speculation that the cold desolation of the previous night’s winter’s journey had somehow lingered into the Saturday. Friday night had seen the second of Simon Keenlyside’s Winterreise performances, with Emmanuel Ax accompanying. It was astounding in its intensity and raw power.

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I due Foscari

Window on the Ca' Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Not an evening to provoke wild enthusiasm. Verdi’s 1844 opera struck me as being some long way short of his later masterpieces, whether or not a particularly persuasive case was made for it. Its greatest virtue was brevity: 111 minutes of run time, and a half hour interval. The half hour of chatting was more eventful, frankly. (more…)

Walküre above a pub

Act 1, Die Walküre, Rosemary Branch Theatre

Act 1, Die Walküre, Rosemary Branch Theatre (excuse the ropey iPhone picture!)

Off to the Rosemary Branch Theatre this afternoon for a couple of hefty chunks of Wagner’s Die Walküre, and rather fantastic it was too.

The New London Opera Players are at the venue performing two shows: this cut-down version of Die Walküre (Act 1 and the close of Act 3) and CarMen, an all-male version of Bizet’s sunny romp. Walküre was a very successful undertaking. The Rosemary Branch is small, probably even by ‘theatre-above-pub’ standards, and so big Wagner voices make a heck of a noise, but it was wonderful to revel in the sonic power at close quarters, and all performers were well able to shade and shape their performance even in this constricted space.  (more…)

Rigoletto back with a bang

Discounting the dreadful Anna Nicole, to which wild horses couldn’t drag me back a second time, the Royal Opera’s season opened with Verdi’s dark 1851 masterpiece, Rigoletto. On 27 September, it was a full-blooded performance of Italian vigour, and definitely one to blow the cobwebs away.

Maurizio Benini was on duty in the pit, driving the orchestra hard whilst still allowing space for the singers: the contrast was thrilling as the big set piece act-closers hoved into view… The storm of act 4 – surely one of Verdi’s most atmospheric effects, with the chorus providing the howling wind to follow the orchestral thunderclaps – was beautifully, hauntingly realised. The orchestra played wonderfully throughout, with particularly characterful brass and woodwind contributions and some very threatening timpani. (more…)

A night of jubilant, infectious pleasure

I ended the last post saying I would write something about the Last Night of the Proms but the title of this post doesn’t refer to that evening. The Last Night was fun, and more benign in its flag-waving daftness than I had expected (a greater diversity of flags being flown than appears on the telly, I thought), and it was good fun to join in the community singalong, but it was some way from jubilant. I’d be very surprised if most of the people around us had been to the required five Prom concerts, either: if they had, they would have known that, during the music, it is unacceptable to take photographs, record videos, update Facebook, send text messages, talk, rummage for sweeties, or leaf through the programme like they were at the hairdressers, distractedly flicking through an old back-issue of Cosmopolitan. Not a concert, more a social occasion; although its reputation as part of the annual round of totemic events for the upper middle classes seemed distinctly wide of the mark. They may as well move it to the O2 and be done with it. (more…)

A run of success

Fresh from the rather disappointing performance at the rather special Bayreuth Festspielhaus, it was back into Proms season and a run of tremendous performances in the dismal Royal Albert Hall… it would seem that the Albert Hall has a message for Bayreuth: you can have a special and well-designed theatre, but it ain’t much use if what you put on isn’t up to scratch. It goes without saying that all of these performances would have been that much more special in a better acoustic, but they still achieved rare levels of intensity in Kensington’s cavernous barn. (more…)

Bayreuth 2014: Tannhäuser.

A long post… Jump through the post if you want to skip ahead…

Festspielhaus Acoustic Tannhäuser
Festspielhaus Bayreuth - facade

Festspielhaus Bayreuth – facade

We are just back from a delightful driving holiday around Germany, the intended culmination of which was to be our first visit to the hallowed Green Hill for a performance – we had previously been for a day trip to the town. Our opera of choice was Tannhäuser, because it coincided with my partner’s birthday. We took advantage of the new policy for a select number of performances to go on sale for internet booking, a policy which was, as far as I can tell, forced upon the Festival organisers by the German Government, fed up with Bayreuth’s fabled inaccessibility in return for its federal and state subsidies. This was to join a select group of performances (mostly otherwise Glyndebourne) for which we paid, by quite some margin, more than we would normally. However, at €160 a ticket, we know we were going to a unique place, to experience something for which the magic derived from the location, the building and the history, as much as the performance itself.

Which is just as well – but we’ll come to that shortly. The first impressions, having arrived from the stunning city of Bamberg on the morning of the performance and having checked into our hotel, were to remind us that the town goes completely Wagner-doolally during Festival season. The hotel (the Ramada Residenzschloss: recommended) was entirely geared up to cater for Wagner-goers: free glass of sekt whilst you wait for the laid-on free bus transfer; meals available before the opera, or after, or packed up for you to take to enjoy during the hour-long intervals; Wagner busts, pictures, posters and statues aplenty. This continues into town, where no pharmacist, bookshop or outfitters can seemingly resist a Wagner-themed window display. You wouldn’t have thought there were enough knick-knacks to go around. For nine months of the year, this is evidently a town whose attics all heave with carefully bubble-wrapped Wagneralia. (more…)