Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Six-pack

I've become increasingly aware in recent months of some great CDs finding their way into chez Specs (how does THAT happen?!) - and my increasing failure to tell you about them. So, weighting the content towards the music itself rather than my ramblings for once, here are a few recent records that make me come over all evangelical.

Jethro Tull: 'The String Quartets'
Being something of a proglodyte, I adore Jethro Tull - and while this disc might look like Ian Anderson could be trading on former glories, I actually think it really works. The songs translate successfully, helped by the frontman's flute (not a euphemism) which gave the originals such a timeless feel in the first place. This selection is the arrangement for 'Locomotive Breath', re-christened 'Loco'.


Elliott Smith: 'Either/Or - Expanded Edition'
I'd always considered myself a huge fan of Smith's music. But it was only when this re-issue of my favourite of his albums was announced, that I realised how hard I had found it to play the CDs following his awful death - now some 14 years ago. Revisiting this record, I found myself binge-listening to his whole body of work, and falling in love with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of melancholic melodies all over again. The appropriately named 'Either/Or' is the precise 'bridging' point between his early albums' whispery acoustic and the later, more robustly produced material. The expanded edition adds some fascinating finds, including his demo of the gorgeous 'I Figured You Out' - a song he found surplus to requirements but recorded beautifully by Mary Lou Lord. But this choice here is 'Alameda' from the original track listing - both firm and fragile, the delicate web of a tune spun over a steely shuffle. Lovely moment when the second verse - and the bass - seem to arrive in a hurry.


Max Richter: 'Orlando: Modular Astronomy' from 'Woolf Works'
Sadly, I haven't made it to a performance of 'Woolf Works', the ballet by Wayne McGregor based on three of Virginia Woolf's novels. However, the score is a haunting, addictive suite by Richter that stands up brilliantly by itself. With clear appeal to someone like me who worships at the Glass altar (among others), the 'Orlando' section variations in particular are resourceful, inventive and welcoming. They manage to conjure up a meeting point between the cerebral, restless personality they celebrate, and a life-affirming physicality for dance.


7JK: 'Ride the Solar Tide'
Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know how much I admire Matt Howden - aka Sieben - who records his solo material with voice, violin and a loop station. Pushing constantly at these parameters, he manages to use his apparently restrictive set-up as a springboard for one heroically inventive and original album after another. However, in his collaborations - such as the mighty Rasp record with Jo Quail and this project with Maciek Frett of Polish industrial band Job Karma - he can really let rip. Dark folk and industrial/noise have long seemed to be unlikely but steadfast 'counter-culture' bedfellows, and in 7JK you have a full-on merger, with Matt's swirling, pulsing fiddle barely contained by the electronic rhythms beneath it. Placing Sheffield firmly within the outer reaches of the solar system, the whole album is a surreal, sinister yet mischievous treat - this track, 'Barry the Astonishing', a great entry point. Channel your inner Estonian!


Cavern of Anti-Matter: 'Blood-Drums' and 'Void Beats / Invocation Trex'
Cavern of Anti-Matter is the latest band from Tim Gane, one of the chief masterminds behind the much-missed Stereolab. Anyone who cherished that group's ability to produce driving, 'motorik', groove-laden anthems while simultaneously sounding so laidback and nonchalant will find much to enjoy here. Without Laetitia Sadler's understatedly cool vocals, this is inevitably a different and slightly less 'sensual' proposition. Instead, there's a kind of techno-fury added to the gloriously analogue mix - real drums propelling synths set to maximum 'squelch'. Two CDs released in quick succession: both great. This is the title track to 'Blood-Drums'.


Lavinia Meijer: 'The Glass Effect'
With one CD entirely devoted to Philip Glass already under her belt, harpist LM has returned to the source, but this time with a luxurious two-disc release that places more Glass arrangements alongside complementary works by a range of contemporary composers (such as Muhly and Arnalds). A great and satisfyingly epic listen, but it's almost impossible for me to tear myself away from the PG compositions themselves - and here is an example, Etude 17.



Sunday, 9 April 2017

Eyes (and ears) front: 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel'

It's hard to imagine how my latest two visits to an opera house could be more different. The last time I was in the Royal Opera House, I saw the new production of Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg', while my trip to the London Coliseum yesterday was for Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Carousel'.

And yet, rightly or wrongly, they seem to share a link that - once I started mulling it over - I found hard to shake off: that their 'offstage' circumstances are bound to influence and colour the way they are received and discussed.

'Meistersinger' was Kasper Holten's farewell production as the ROH's Director of Opera. He heads back to his native Denmark (where he has said he wants his young family to settle), earlier than we might have expected. Both his own productions and overall tenure at the ROH seem to have provoked mixed reactions, and the fact that he was bowing out with an opera featuring a bunch of reactionaries resisting artistic progress didn't go unnoticed. Personally, I'd guess that a new production of 'Meistersinger' must've been in the works for some years, longer than KH would've been deciding whether to stay on or not - but I don't know, and I don't particularly want to know. The 'critique of the critic' - if that's how one wants to view it - is all there in the opera already.

I saw three operas directed by KH - 'Don Giovanni', 'Krol Roger', then 'Meistersinger' - and they show to me, at any rate, a definite consistency of approach which appeals to me personally. Without going into all-out 'Regietheater' (the practice of reinventing source material - think modern-dress Shakespeare - but increasingly a by-word for a director-as-dictator pushing interpretation to the limits, sometimes steamrollering over the received wisdom about the composer's intentions) ... we are invited into 'Kasperworld', a slightly surreal - but not 'unreal' - domain where unexpected visuals add a further dimension to what we hear. For example, the projections in 'DG' included the writing of the anti-hero's conquests across the background - while the number of his seductions can be sung for comic effect, the endless list of names brings home his horrendous treatment of hundreds of women. 'Krol Roger', a brilliant psychodrama, was enacted around a large effigy of the king's head, with dancers moving like synapses within, playing out the mental struggle.

And so, onto 'Meistersinger', where the scenes are blurred, so that characters can occupy the same space on stage but 'be' in any location - Sachs's workshop, the meeting hall, the streets. The set also revolves, so that some of the action is played out 'backstage', without anyone breaking character. While I'm still not sure this worked 100% dramatically, I liked the idea - one thing constantly running through the opera is artifice: everyone is putting up a front of some kind. Both Sachs and Eva have to skirt round the fact that he might have won her, and she might have gone for him; Beckmesser is barely holding himself together; Walther is striving to be something he isn't - and David pretends to be something he isn't when teaching him. Spoiler alert: the most infamous example is the ever-problematic ending, where Sachs seems to 'snap' out of his progressive outlook, go back to being old-school and praise heritage German art. For this, KH had a clever twist up his sleeve, where Eva flees the scene rather than submit to Walther, who - against his initial instincts - ends up going down the trad route and joining the elite.

With this in mind, I found the 'theatrical bubble' presentation appealing and stimulating. It needed great performances to carry it, and I felt we got these: stand-outs for me were Bryn Terfel (unsurprisingly) who, I felt, caught particularly well the underlying melancholy of Sachs - no mean feat to sing so powerfully yet convey a kind of weary resignation in the acting. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was superbly cast, giving Eva a strong-willed maturity that made her convince opposite both Sachs and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and give the surprise ending a meaningful foundation. Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton brought Lena and David - who could so easily be a sub-plot 'mirror couple' - to comic yet tender, emotionally-sung, three-dimensional life.


(Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton, in Clive Barda's great production photo, copyright Royal Opera House 2017.)

'Carousel', meanwhile, is the latest in a series of musicals playing at the Coliseum while English National Opera ('ENO') is between seasons. But there has been a bit more 'between seasons' than usual, with ENO's business woes resulting in the decision to make the 2016/17 season shorter and less resource-heavy than usual.

I've made no secret in the past on this blog of where my sympathies and loyalties lie when it comes to ENO: they're with the company (small 'c') - by which I mean, the Chorus and Orchestra. As a punter, it's quite clear to me they are an exceptional group of musicians and I want to see them treated with maximum appreciation and respect, and given as much gainful employment as possible.

[STOP PRESS: As I type this, the Olivier Awards are being announced. ENO's 'Akhnaten' has won Best New Opera Production, and Mark Wigglesworth - their previous Music Director who sadly resigned - has won Outstanding Achievement in Opera for conducting ENO's recent 'Don Giovanni' and 'Lulu'. I couldn't be more pleased.]

The 2016/17 season - while it had some great shows which I loved - could and should have used the Chorus, in particular, more than it did. The musicals are potentially controversial because they historically bring in talent rather than use what ENO have already - but at the same time, the organisation are quite upfront about using them to generate income from the Coliseum when it might otherwise be dark.

Encouragingly, however, 'Carousel' is using the ENO Orchestra and Chorus alongside a song 'n' dance ensemble, which made me feel more comfortable about going along to support it. It's a musical I happen to like - at least in terms of the songs - and it was a chance to take my mum and dad to the Coliseum. (Phase 1 in a long game, aiming at getting them along to an opera.) However, the lead roles are not taken by opera singers, as I generally experience them - but 'crossover' classical stars Alfie Boe as Billy and Katherine Jenkins as Julie.

I had a really good time at 'Carousel' - I think it's a show that will give everyone exactly what they want to take from it. [With my blessing, please stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.]

Lots of it, I thought, was absolutely terrific: the Orchestra are on majestic form, as are the Chorus, simply adding more and more weight to my existing conviction that they can do absolutely anything, brilliantly. For a 'semi-staging', the set was a lot more inventive than I was expecting - attractive, static backgrounds gave a feel for location, while wooden platform proved endlessly all-purpose as the action required. I particularly enjoyed the pathway being constructed for Billy to walk on while he was actually performing the 'Soliloquy' number - it added to the impression of his being lost in thought, with only the theatrical machinery there to support him. And there are two thrilling dance sequences - the overture (a reverse run-through of the entire story) and the heart-rending sequence showing Louise (Billy's daughter) grow to adolescence.

AB and KJ both gave sincere, committed performances. I actually found this aspect of the show the hardest to get used to: the singers were miked up. This is not to criticise the leads at all - I can honestly say that I've never really followed their careers because they don't tend to perform repertoire in the way I want to hear it. But I'm used to hearing people in the Coliseum sing with that much power and conviction without amplification - so the point is, it simply sounded different. I took a long time to get to grips with it. But there is absolutely no question - we were surrounded by fans of both performers, who clearly loved every minute. And it's hard to imagine anyone with an emotional investment in either or both of the stars coming away disappointed. It actually made a welcome change from what one unfortunately sometimes hears on exiting the opera house or concert hall - certain attendees (casualties of extreme fandom, which can so easily damage the ability to simply enjoy oneself), racing to be the first to pick holes in a production or performance to their companions.

Here is some sample text from a recent review of ENO's 'The Winter's Tale' - I don't really want to name the reviewer:


I tweeted these 'grabs' when I saw them because they are everything I dislike in music writing. The lower one has that horrible 'Inner Smirk-le' tone that we are all sneering at a shared, hated production (well, I loved 'Thebans'). But the one on top seems to imply that if there's any difficulty or issue floating around a company or production, then it can and should be used as a kind of ammo, to back up whatever negative stuff one might want to say about it.

I reject that ill-meant smugness totally. As unlikely a pair as they may be, 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel' have both reminded me how important it is to take what we see and hear onstage for what it is: a heady concoction of ideas, talent, effort and commitment, brought alive by gifted, dedicated people. We should never take them for granted.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Identity crisis

Huge decision for me, but I've been mulling it over - and saving up - for some time. After putting up for most of my life (since I realised at about age five or six that I couldn't read the words flashing up on the television) with my glasses, I've had enough. I've never managed to cope with contact lenses, either - partly due to just finding them uncomfortable, and no doubt also thanks to a prejudice against them since seeing one of my teachers clean his with his own saliva. (I had glasses by then, so I can assure you, that's definitely what he was doing.)

So - I'm going to have corrective laser eye surgery and get rid of the d____d specs once and for all. But - at that point, as perhaps you might - I gave pause. No more specs. Would that mean no more 'Specs'?

It's clear that once I get the op done, I can no longer call this blog by its current name. It wouldn't make any sense. I'm reluctant to let 'Specs' go, and the thought of having to build its enormous, loyal fanbase back up because no-one has any idea what it's called anymore fills me with dread. But it has to be done. To ease the problem, I've decided to get anyone who'd like to be involved in on the act and help me re-name the site.

I have made a start, but I'm not really that happy with my ideas so far:
  • "Spexit", obviously. Not only would this be a nod to my old post about the referendum, but it would represent the cutting-edge satire for which this blog is justly famed. But I don't just want to jump on some kind of transient political bandwagon.
  • "Specsavers", in that I'm saved from having to use specs any longer. But the name sounds familiar.
  • "Corrective Laser Eye Surgery", in that it would be directly equivalent to what I use "Specs" for now. But I don't think it has the necessary 'zing' to it, somehow.
  • "Eyes". Bit dull. Everyone has those.
  • Possibly something else that I have to wear all the time. "Pants"?
As you can see, I'm struggling. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, not only by me, but by the vast number of site visitors who will probably be reluctant to type "Pants" into their search engines. Prizes should, perhaps, be awarded to those of you who check the date of this post before getting in touch.

Have a great weekend!



Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Tale of two operas: ENO round-up

English National Opera - or ENO - has now come to the end of its 'main' 2016/2017 season at the Coliseum. What with all of its widely-reported behind-the-scenes woes making the programme slightly shorter and sharper than before (fewer productions, under-use of the chorus) ... I still came away from my last two visits of the season feeling happy to support - and hugely grateful for - such a fine company.

Although the two operas in question are vastly different, in their own ways they each represented some of the best ENO has to offer. One, 'The Winter's Tale', was a brand new work by composer Ryan Wigglesworth (based - for the best, I would say - on the Shakespeare play rather than the David Essex Yuletide hit), while the other was a revival of Christopher Alden's production of Handel's 'Partenope'.

Rory Kinnear directed the new opera, and one thing I suspect his involvement guaranteed was that the piece kept total faith with the original's 'problem play' status. While this is one of several late Shakespeare works that explore the hinterland between comedy and tragedy, the laser-sharp focus of this tight two-hour adaptation underlines how full the story is of tension and suspense. The cylindrical set emphasises the royal family's 'shut-in', ivory-tower insularity (besieged by the chorus's disgruntled mob), breaking open at moments of trauma and revelation.


(Production photo from ENO website, credit Johan Persson.)

The end of Act I in particular - where great disaster befalls Leontes as he loses his wife and son, then banishes the daughter he doesn't believe is his - was utterly nerve-jangling, with the mighty ENO chorus on audibly intimidating form, ratcheting up the intensity with every line. The score (conducted by the composer) was a co-conspirator - at one crisis point, when I thought I'd reached my limits of excitement and unease, a drum-kit jazz break burst into life, pushing me further towards the edge.

The production as a whole brandished a cruel wit in keeping with the story's dark tone. Statues to the king's vanity foreshadowed the image of the queen Hermione that will mercifully come to life at the opera's close. Shakespearean purists may have been disappointed that Antigonus didn't 'Exit, pursued by a bear' - except that as he retreats from the Bohemian cost, the stars of the Plough - 'Ursa Major' - twinkle above him. In a nice casting touch, the superb Neal Davies sang both Antigonus and the role of the Shepherd, as if he never actually gave up his duty of care to Perdita at all.

Iain Paterson - who gave such a tremendous performance as Hans Sachs in the recent ENO 'Mastersingers' - was on blistering form as Leontes, showing how monumental anger can give way to all-consuming grief. The whole cast in fact - Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory endearing as the young lovers, Leigh Melrose as Polixenes - who comes so close in his own rage to repeating Leontes's mistakes, and Sophie Bevan as a wounded, defiant Hermione - all in terrific voice, but at the same time, clearly directed with as much attention to acting as singing. As a result, we experienced something very raw and immediate: human, domestic emotion under attack from enigma, coincidence and magic.

If 'The Winter's Tale' showed us the questing, challenging, 'contemporary' ENO, then 'Partenope' gave us its irreverent capacity to innovate and delight. This production places Handel's soldier-queen into Paris of the twenties, highlighting that the opera is surely far more concerned with matters of the boudoir than the battlefield.


(Production photo from ENO website, credit Catherine Ashmore.)

It allows for some brilliant commentary on the costume and cross-dressing: Partenope dominant in top hat and tails; a woman playing a man in a 'trouser' role (Arsace), alongside a woman playing a woman playing a man (Rosmira). Emilio, the invader/observer, is styled as the photographer Man Ray, whose surreal aesthetic gave the staging much of its beauty and humour: from the use of masks (not just as symbols for concealed identities, but also a kind of protection and reluctance to engage), to the 'big reveal' as Emilio's nude photo helps Arsace to realise how to, er, expose Rosmira...

The six-strong ensemble were all at perfect ease in their roles. Sarah Tynan was an electric, exquisite Partenope, nonchalantly prompting everyone else in the opera to fall head over heels for her; Rupert Charlesworth combining a really powerful vocal presence with a clever, consistent and edgily comic demeanour as Emilio. The women in drag were both wonderful: I'm in awe of Patricia Bardon's versatility (having seen her before as the Princess in 'Suor Angelica' and in the lead role in John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'), here as the torn Arsace, and Stephanie Windsor Lewis seemed to be having the time of her life as Rosmira, in disguise as the bluff and at times heroically sweary Eurimine. Matthew Durkan as Ormonte and James Laing as Armindo were winning foils, with the latter in particular squaring up to some demanding physical comedy - including delivery of a key aria while hanging from a staircase.

While it will be hard to handle the ENO withdrawal symptoms, I should add here that there are other opportunities between now and next season to hear the great chorus and orchestra in action.
  • If you like musicals, the 'big ticket' at the Coliseum across April and May is 'Carousel', starring Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. ENO's chorus and orchestra are the backbone. While anything from the 'fact' of the production to its starry casting has excited plenty of social media opinions, I really rate 'Carousel' - so I'm taking my folks, and an open mind.
  • 'ENO Studio Live' is a new initiative, presenting more modest, but still fully-staged operas at Lilian Baylis House. Particularly exciting to my mind is its remit to cast chorus members in main roles. There are two productions this year: Jonathan Dove's 'The Day After' (which I'm definitely going to), and Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury' (which I fear I may have to miss).
  • And there are two performances at the Southbank of Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', with the company supporting a Dream cast: Gwyn Hughes Jones, Patricia Bardon and Matthew Rose.
I've focused on company performances here but there's still more - from Silent Opera's Janacek adaptation to a new work about jazz giant Charlie Parker at the Hackney Empire - so please take a look at ENO's website and support them if you can.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Carolyn Sampson: in song and on stage

As regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know, there are certain artists I try to champion whenever possible on this blog. And in some cases, it can be agonising to miss an opportunity to do so, through not being able to make a particular run of performances, or catch a local enough gig. So it was sheer pleasure to have the chance to see and hear one of my favourite singers, Carolyn Sampson, not once, but twice in a single week - in very different contexts - and be reminded all over again of both her brilliance and versatility.

We begin on a gratuitous Monday off work, at the Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert. Accompanying CS was lutenist Matthew Wadsworth. They are longtime recital partners, and to my shame I'd only come across MW's playing previously on a Wigmore live disc the duo had released some time ago. The programme for this concert was a lovely exercise in balance: to begin with, it presented the artists very much as equals, with MW performing several instrumental pieces solo. It also mixed old - 'usual suspects' Dowland and Purcell bookended the gig - and new. Brand new, in fact, as MW gave the world premiere of a charming new suite of pieces for theorbo, 'The Miller's Tale', composed by Stephen Goss. (For those unfamiliar, the theorbo is the giraffe of the string instrument family - lute-like body, but with a long neck rising well above the player's shoulder: extra strings to provide more bass.)

Bridging ancient and modern, at the centre of the recital, were three of Britten's folk song settings. Just as Stephen Goss tuned his guitar like a theorbo to compose the new pieces, Britten's arrangements are more often heard on the modern instrument, but here were rendered beautifully on MW's theorbo, eliding two eras seamlessly, as if we were suspended in a unique time and space just for that hour in the auditorium.

CS is absolutely in her element with this material. While the pristine beauty of the voice is in evidence throughout, her ability to communicate the spirit of each song makes her superb to watch as well as listen to. Thanks to her sensitive but never over-serious approach, it's a thrill-ride to be transported from a tender heartbreaker to one of the more cheerful and somewhat bawdier choices - performed with a customary flirtatious brio that hopefully didn't accelerate too many pacemakers in the Wigmore or Radio 3 audiences!

I was in two minds about mentioning this - in terms of his performance, it should be irrelevant - but I'll go ahead. MW is blind. While this makes me admire his abilities all the more (for example, my mind boggles at the effort that must be involved receiving and learning a new premiere score), it also illuminates the generosity and attentiveness they must both possess to work as a duo. So often, the singer is seen as 'leader' and the accompanist tends to be the one visibly 'following' - but here, the exchange seems far more mutual, even telepathic, with MW clearly listening for breathing and movement at a level I could no doubt barely imagine, and CS watching his every move. I actually felt privileged to watch: what might have been an 'obstacle', something to be overcome, in fact results in a next-level partnership, something to aspire to.

Fast forward to the end of the week, to an event I had been looking forward to for months. CS was singing Melisande in Scottish Opera's production of Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande' - and we had decided to treat ourselves and make a special trip to see it in Edinburgh (where Mrs Specs also has People, conveniently enough). The pilgrimage was made even more worthwhile by the opportunity to hear the marvellous bass Alastair Miles again, after seeing his extraordinary performance as Claggart in Opera North's 'Billy Budd' last year.

[Slight spoiler alert: the run of 'P&M' has now finished, so I will be mentioning below some features of the staging, simply so I can talk about how haunting and clever I found it. You have been warned!]


As one might expect from a story that attracted Debussy, 'P&M' is an elusive, mysterious tale. I won't try to summarise every detail, but in brief: Prince Golaud - grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde - loses his bearings while hunting, and stumbles upon a lost young woman, Mélisande. She shows signs of escaping abuse from her former life (initially she won't let Golaud near her), but he is besotted and takes her with him. They marry. However, Golaud's half-brother, Pelléas is also staying at the castle, as his father is ill. Pelléas and Mélisande spend time together and become close. While Pelléas seems to fall more openly in love - arranging 'final' meetings of great import and making overtures to Mélisande beneath her window - she seems to reciprocate but holds something of herself in reserve. Meanwhile, Golaud's jealousy intensifies from spying to violent rage (dragging the pregnant Mélisande across the floor). Interrupting the tryst where Mélisande finally admits her love for Pelléas, Golaud kills his half-brother. Shortly after giving birth, Mélisande also dies (even though she is barely injured), with Golaud still torn between believing her faithful and pressing her to admit her guilt.

Trying to outline the plot in this way inevitably means passing over the opera's rich symbolism and ethereal approach to storytelling and 'reality'. Its events feel cumulative - we're aware of time passing and unseen exchanges between, and sometimes during, the acts - and we build our overall picture from what can feel like impressionistic scenes. This sense of 'disconnect' allows the characters to remain unpredictable throughout, their feelings and motives sometimes shifting, never letting us fully second-guess their intentions.

Here the performers really came into their own. CS was a revelation (I had never seen her in a fully-staged opera before). Her ability to convey lightning mood changes and complexities of character - so useful in song recitals when a protagonist's fortunes vary wildly from verse to verse! - made her an ideal Mélisande. It felt like we could simultaneously read her mind, yet never truly know her. She was especially hypnotic to watch during the scene, when - during a lighter-hearted exchange with Pelléas - Mélisande loses her wedding ring in a well. As you'd expect, we saw shock and regret, but also a half-smile as if the loss could fleetingly represent a release or escape. CS also gave us a Mélisande who could really move: sliding and balancing across beds or benches in the early scenes with an agile grace, she seemed of nature, of the forest - which I'll come back to shortly. And whatever the physical demands of the role - including leaning upside down from a window having her hair pulled - her singing never left perfection-level.


(A stunning Scottish Opera production photo, credit Richard Campbell.)

The rest of the cast also shone. Like CS, whose purity of voice can also carry a hint of more earthly, sensual sparkle when needed, each singer was a skilfully-cast tonal match for their role. I've already mentioned Alastair Miles, his warm bass emphasising Arkel's sympathy and stability amid the slow-motion chaos around him. Again, he gave a lower-key, but intensely physical performance. Arkel's literal blindness constrained AM's gestures but he was able to demonstrate the irony that, while the old man must gently lean on others for actual support, he is the one who so often provides it. Andrei Bondarenko fleshed out Pelléas admirably, his flexible baritone capturing the character's mix of assumed gravitas, blurred motives and sometimes perplexing diffidence. And Roland Wood gave a searing performance as Golaud, knotted up with relentless anguish, directing his rage inward as much as out towards his wife and half-brother.

The uniformly fine performances extended to Scottish Opera's Orchestra, conducted by their music director Stuart Stratford. In their hands, Debussy's score - which I am probably the 6,275th person to describe as 'ravishing' - waxed and waned like a kind of ceaseless, shimmering mélodie, somehow finding a way of dramatising constant change: not just the trademark water, but beneath human surfaces, shifting emotions and loyalties.

This brings me on to the staging - directed by Sir David McVicar, who must share a great deal of the credit with Rae Smith (design) and Paule Constable (lighting). The essential appearance of the background and characters takes its cue from the paintings of Danish artist Hammershoi. From the very start, we see both trees - to the left - with walls / panels centre and right, as if somehow the forest and castle are already merging. Golaud stands with his sword, a little distance from a bed where Mélisande lies. However, he - the interior in turmoil - is lost on the forest side, while she - apparently 'of' the forest, is already seemingly trapped, attached to the furniture. As the action progresses, nature starts to gain the upper hand - more and more trees 'grow' across the stage, and the caves, pools and wells spring up within the rooms.

I found this fascinating on several levels. The extraordinary lighting and set design placed the characters in a constant shadow world, whether light or dark, mirroring their emotional repression. As each scene ended, the curtains closed in from left, right and above, heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere. The overlap between interior and exterior seemed a carefully thought-through and - appropriately enough - watertight metaphor for what can be said and acted upon, and what can't. Mélisande, who once might have been a literal 'free spirit', has clearly suffered in the past, and the clearest symbol of that unrestrained nature, her hair, becomes a tool for abuse - not just from Golaud, who grabs it to drag her across the floor, but from Pelléas, who in his love seeks to entrap and control her, binding her tresses not only to himself, but to the tree by her window.

The production ends on a truly breathtaking coup de théâtre: as Mélisande fades away on her deathbed, surrounded by doctor and servants in a room full of trees, the folk onstage recede and some of the trunks lift off gently into the air. Mélisande has brought nature, the outside world, into the castle, and it will leave with her. However, stage left, Golaud's young son hands him his sword, and leaves. We realise that the two are left alone onstage, exactly as we first saw them: Golaud in identical pose by the few remaining trees, and Mélisande in the same bed. So many thoughts crowded my head as I reeled from this - it felt at once like a heart-rending reminder of the cycle of abuse that men can visit upon women; it seemed to symbolise our ongoing violence against nature (personified by Mélisande), that whenever we come into contact with it, we try to overpower, crush and ultimately ruin it... let alone the fact that it was simply a glorious visual idea, alive with intelligence and imagination, a refresh and repeat for the eyes that matched the motifs and patterns already bewitching our ears.

*

So often I have to write about past glories on the blog, but as long as you can access BBC's iPlayer Radio, you can hear both of these performances. For the Wigmore Hall concert, go to this link - at the time of writing, there are 25 days left to listen.

'Pelléas et Mélisande' was recorded during the Glasgow run and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 25 March. After that, it will live for another 30 days on iPlayer Radio. Don't miss!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Song journeys at Wigmore Hall

I realise that I'm very lucky to be able to say this - but I've enjoyed a run of activity lately which, once you factor in all the other work/life stuff, has meant that I've been to see and hear things faster than I've been able to write them up. I'm conscious there's a bit of a backlog building... so please forgive me if I go back in time a few weeks or so to tell you about a couple of great concerts I heard at the Wigmore Hall.

Both were song recitals, both shorter programmes performed without intervals, and both featured the same pianist, Gary Matthewman. That aside, though (and this is testament to GM's versatility), the experiences could not have been more different.

The first was a highly unconventional performance of Schubert's great song cycle 'Winterreise', with bass Matthew Rose in the lovelorn wanderer role. MR and GM have already released their interpretation of 'Winterreise' on disc - a desirable artefact, not just because it's such a sensitive recording, but also a beautiful object in itself. I mention this because, live, the rendition gained an extra dimension as the duo collaborated with artist Victoria Crowe (whose paintings adorn the CD package) and designer/video-maker Kenneth Gray to create an animated film that played 'in sync' throughout the entire 70-odd minutes of the cycle's duration.


I've never seen anything like this at the Wigmore. It's amazing how we just become used to song recitals running in a certain way - singer in the centre, pianist a little to the left, lights left up a little so we can choose to bury our heads in the song text... Not this time. We were in near-darkness, the performers right over to the side of the stage to give us the clearest view possible of the visuals. Although I've reached a point where I know 'Winterreise' quite well now, I wouldn't say I had anything like a complete translation lodged in my brain. But this offered a totally new way to experience it - the music guides you through the emotional twists and turns of the story, as you lose yourself in the perfectly timed images.

I've thought Matthew Rose superbly convincing in any setting I've encountered him in - recital, sacred music or opera: most recently, he shone as a highly complex, hilarious yet vulnerable Ochs in the recent Royal Opera House 'Rosenkavalier'. However, he does not 'grandstand' as a performer, immersing himself wholly to produce exactly what's needed in service of the piece, or role. Here, he was all but invisible to the audience, allowing us to focus on his voice alone, strangely 'disembodied' in these conditions. But - and I may be alone in this - there is something about listening to 'Winterreise' for the bass voice. Somewhere, when it is sung and played 'higher up', it feels like it lets in more air, but something about the combination of the 'wide', rich lower notes seems to increase the intensity for me - a more dense, claustrophobic sound. MR was truly impassioned, articulating every mood swing and providing the most chilling, resoundingly terrifying close to the cycle I've heard to date. Experimental, then, but utterly sure-footed: a confident step forward into a new way of hearing - and seeing - an established classic.

Fast forward to a few days later, and a Sunday afternoon recital with GM accompanying soprano Louise Alder. This was the kind of gig where a personality lights up a room. Here's the programme (apologies for the authentic 'on-the-train-home' bendiness of the photo - it's as if you're actually there!):


After hearing LA for this all-too-brief hour, I could have happily sat there and kept listening for the rest of the day. Clearly, the selections were calibrated and balanced for maximum delight. Seasoned Specs readers may not be surprised to learn that the Debussy songs were my personal highlight, but part of the concert's overall joy was being carried through this range of fascinating material in such pleasurable company.

In contrast to the wanderer in 'Winterreise', locked into perhaps permanent, frost-bitten darkness - in Louise Alder's programme, we broadly edged our way into the light. From Sibelius's 'Nordic noir', through Larkin's grey repression captured in gripping settings by Huw Watkins, we travel through Debussy's ever-elusive middle ground into the colourful, characterful songs of operatic titans Puccini and Verdi.

LA is a member of Frankfurt's Opera Ensemble, so it's perhaps no wonder that, while her shining tone effortlessly resounded across the Wigmore acoustic throughout, she brought her acting skills to bear on every number, upbeat or downcast. Visibly adjusting her persona between songs, and even verses - she made each selection its own mini-drama. The sequence allowed for more light-hearted antics towards the recital's close, and sent us out into the afternoon in buoyant mood.

It's also no surprise that LA is currently a finalist for the 2017 Opera Awards 'Young Singer', as well as this year's Cardiff Singer of the World. Best of luck to her in both, and we should only hear more and more of her - thank goodness.


Saturday, 25 February 2017

Acaustics

Something new for the Specs blog, I think - I've just discovered* (*made up) a completely new branch of aural science: one can but hope that the product of such searingly incisive new thought might be a PhD, or perhaps a Nobel. A knighthood, even...? Who knows?

Anyway. Introducing 'acaustics'. First and foremost, it's clearly a pun. Second, it's my name for a particularly peculiar, perplexing phenomenon. Namely, the First Law of Acaustics: that intrusive, disruptive noise made inside a concert hall is always loud enough to compete with the sounds you're actually there to hear.


I started thinking about this a short while back, after attending a series of gigs (different music, different venues) where the coughing in the audience seemed especially bad - like the bug was following me around, but with everyone in my vicinity catching it except me. Now don't get me wrong - although it sometimes winds me up a bit, I don't want to write a post about how terrible coughing in an auditorium is. Of course people sometimes need to cough. But what surprises me is the lack of attempt to stifle it. I can count on one hand the number of times I detect a muffled *ahem*. But I would need to be the Many-Handed Man of Many Hands to tot up the number of sky-ripping, gut-fraying, truly tubercular explosions I've experienced as an audience member. Why?

You could decide that all of these people - all of them, everywhere, independently ailing - were being thoughtless, or even vandalistic. But is that really likely? I'm wondering if in fact, it's just a poor grasp of acaustics.

My ideas on this came into focus when recently visiting the supremely enjoyable ENO production of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance'. Now, Mrs Specs and I had chosen to attend a Saturday matinee, so inevitably there were more kids and entire families than I would normally expect on, say, a midweek evening. But on the whole - and 'Pirates' is hardly a panto - the children were as good as gold, and I'm not the kind of showgoer who gets annoyed when little ones lean forward, or point at something excitedly, or ask a parent what's happening. I'm generally rather pleased they're there. But - and I suspect you saw that 'But' coming some time ago - the problem lay with the grown-ups (and not just those who had children with them), who thought a trip like this was basically the same as the cinema.

But it isn't. It's not a coincidence that noisy snacks and slurpy drinks are usually on sale at events which are amplified: the sound at a film or rock gig is cranked up to levels that obliterate the popcorn-munching and straw-sucking more or less completely. I'm still slightly surprised at the need some people have to undergo a full-on dining experience at the movies, and I rather feel that the word 'Technicolour' was originally coined to refer to kiosk-assembled nachos before it caught on to describe the films themselves. But at least I can see and hear them.

In a concert hall, which by definition should be constructed to enhance sound made entirely without amplification, it's every noise for itself. This, I think, goes some way to explaining why it's so often classical music fans that moan about this kind of thing, unwittingly fuelling the fire of the terminally dull 'elitism' debate.

However - at various points during 'Pirates', I was also treated to these extra audio enhancements:
  • A bloke breaking open a packet of posh crisps - yes, crisps - a few seats along, and - brilliantly - moving each tasty potato snack towards his mouth very slowly, as if his arm was the problem - then crunching down on it with maximum force anyway. He was sharing the bag with his companion (now that's a stingy date, eh, ladies?), forcing her to rummage among the surviving crisps for her portion.
  • A group of girls a couple of rows behind us rustling sweet wrappers for an entire scene. A quick glance back seemed to confirm that they had bags of Haribo large enough to keep them going through the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle but, being kids, had actually put the whole lot away in record time. I can only assume that they were insensible on E-numbers for the rest of the show.
  • A dad who, weirdly, seemed to have bought a ticket too many, so sat himself a seat's distance away from his kids - possibly to give them a sense of slightly grown-up independence. Which might make sense, except he kept leaning across the unnecessarily long distance to stage-whisper things at them, his comments wafting up to us in a kind of blurred 'schschschsch'. Pleasingly, the children looked rather irritated by this, with 'DAD WE'RE TRYING TO WATCH THE OPERA' written all over their faces.
Again, it's very tempting to fall into the 'I'm surrounded by idiots!' trap, but I find it hard to believe that all of these folk are just rotters. It does flummox me when people can spend an entire interval chatting only to start laying out some kind of picnic or flinging their bags and clothes around once the music starts up again.

But this is no doubt all due to the Second Law of Acaustics: that those making the noise are, themselves, unable to detect other acaustic phenomena. Does a serial talker ever get annoyed by someone else's sweet wrapper? Apparently not. I am genuinely fascinated by this kind of 'hive mind' journey towards a listening experience being somehow not enough in itself: that it isn't a proper occasion unless, ironically, you've made it a little more like your front room, with the attendant discussion over snacks.

At the recent Music into Words conference I took part in, Kate Romano spoke fascinatingly about the more fractured way we 'consume' music these days and whether that could feed into programming. I certainly think there's important work ahead in allowing people to absolutely 'be themselves' at concerts and they should not be intimidated into staying away while the rest of us sit in serene, immobile attendance. One example that instantly springs to mind is Wigmore Hall's concerts specifically for kids, or for carers and their patients. But more than that, multi-genre gigs in a relaxed environment, where people's expectations are managed and more audience freedom encouraged, would be a wonderful way to break down barriers, not just between audiences, but in the music itself.

In the meantime, though, I cling to my suspicion that ignorance of acaustics - which is, as you know, a very new field - is all that prevents wilfully noisy audience members from realising the level of disturbance they currently create. If any of you believe you suffer from this affliction, please feel free to consult me for further information. I'm extremely reasonable.