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Bruckner 7 and Haitink's last appearance at the BBC Proms

I was lucky to have gotten a ticket to see Bernard Haitink conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner 7th Symphony. No doubt it is a work that Haitink knows well - he did it without score. The movements were broad, had shape, and above all nuanced rather than bombastic. His mildmannered gestures were in starck contract to Andris Nelsons's rendition of Bruckner 8 (earlier in the season). It was a real treat to see this maestro still deliveirng the musical umph at 90. A memorable concert that was.


Benvenuto Cellini at BBC Proms

So few opera houses dare to stage Benvenuto Cellin, why? The last time was at the ENO - which was a colourful and fun production, and in the process probably bankrupted the house.

In a more modest approach, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchetre Révolutionnaire et Romantique brought a concert version of the opera to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall. Michael Spyres's rendtion of the title role was pretty good - torn yet full of punch. The Monteverdi Choir was fantastic at those fiendishly fast and difficult choruses (famously in the carnival scene): the text was clear, the light acting was effective, and the choreography (Noa Naamat as stage director) worked. Rick Fisher's lighting, though you wouldn't notice it, was just right for that challenging venue.


Vaughan Williams, Hugh and Elgar, BBC Proms

Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was neatly played, though the placement of the small orchestra at the back of the main band meant it came out as one wash of sound: couldn't they have put small orchestra in the middle of the Arena? That would have made an interesting musical experience.

Hugh Wood's Scenes from Comus was tightly played. Andrew Davis brought out the contrast between Wood's Viennese colours and the almost tonal world of early 20th Century. One could hear what was to come later in subsequent decades. This was the highligh of the concert.

Elgar's The Music Makers was in the second half. Dame Connolly's effort was noted, and the general ensemble of the choir and orchestra under Andrew Davis was fine. BUT I had a real issue with the work - it's Edwardian remix - the best of Elgar cobbled together for some much needed cash. The text, though well chosen, was fitted into a bunch of recycled tunes. It just sounded ever so dull…

Bruckner 8, Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Bruckner 8 Symphony was a gigantic piece of symphonic writing. What better to hear a mature and thoughtful Andris Nelsons conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra? The slow measured start gave rise to the hallmark relentlessness of the later Bruckner symphonies. Nelsons brought out the rising and falling phrases, and ensured the episodic chunks together form a coherent whole. The scherzo second movement was precise and at pace. Feierlich langsam (3rd movement) was subtle, mournful with a glimmer of light. The masculine sound for the brass section delivered a memorable finale

Stephen Hough plays Memdelssohn, BBC Proms

The stars of this Prom were Stephen Hough and Queen Victoria's own richly gilded piano made by Érard (1856). Hough played Mendelssohn's piano concerto no 1 with poise and pace. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ádám Fischer provided well balanced accompaniment. Though one could hear Hough was battling with an instrument that lacked a resonant upper register. The Érard sounded like a large fortepiano with good middle and lower register voice, but to modern ears that are used to Steinway Model Ds it sounded somewhat dull. The encore (Chopin Nocturne No 2 in E Flat) suited the keyboard much more - with a mellow sound one could imagine a musical soireé in a drawing room at Buckingham Palace. An interesting concert, memorable for different reasons.

Joyce DiDonato sings Les Nuits d'été, BBC Proms

Young Benjamin Beckman's work (European premiere) Occidentalis turned out to be a fun piece confidently played by the The National Youth Orchestra of the US of A.

The real highlight of the concert was Joyce DiDonato singing Berlioz Les Nuits d'été. Not exactly a jolly set of songs, and DiDonato's voice painted a gloomy and dark world of longing and grieve. Her French text was superbly clear and the orchestra under Pappano's baton provided the lush orchestra backdrop.

The band than embakred on a mighty journey climbing up the Alps (Ein Alpensinfonie) - the sound was fresh, eager and above all enjoyed - in that I felt the players did enjoy playing this symphonic poem in the RAH. The brass section of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was up in the gallery offering the off-stage effect: though one could hear a little competitiveness in their, hmm, dynamics. A fun Sunday morning that was.

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera

I went to hear and see Christian Gerhaher as Figaro in this revival production. He didn't disappoint - his singing delivered real nuance and understanding of the role.  Simon Keenlyside made a very good Count Almaviva. The surprise (and delight) was to hear Kangmin Justin Kim singing Cherubino (normally a trouser role) - his acting and agile voice was well suited to the role. Hope to see more of him in the future (may be as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier?)

John Eliot Gardiner's conducting was interesting. Sure we know and love Mozart's score. But somehow, the orchestra seemed very present throughout the four acts. If anything, it was too present (not loud, just present) - to the point of distracting.

Still, this David McVicar (revived by Thomas Guthrie) production was always a joy to see - simple yet clever.

Cendrillon at Glyndebourne

Danielle de Niese as Cendrillon was able to characterise the downtrodden country girl as well as the alluring star of the Prince's ball. And an extra star for her dashing back from Cardiff Singer of the World competition the night before. Kate Lindsey in the trouser role of the Prince was superb too - especially in the duet towards the end of the ball scene. Lionel Lhote as Pandolfe delivered his lovely aria with a rich and mature tone.



Fiona Shaw's production and Jon Bausor's design were magical. The clever use of semi-seethrough mirrors was so effective in portraying the fleeting nature of love between Cendrillon and the Prince. The gradual yet unmistakble appearance of the count-down clock was spine-tinkingly good.

Most people would be familiar with Massenet's better known operas such as Werther and Thais. Cendrillo, this lighthearted and farytale opera, is rarely staged. I hope this fantastic production will make many happy returns.

Tosca at the Royal Opera

The last time I saw Tosca, I was very disappointed. This is, again, a revival of the now tried-and-tested Jonathan Kent's production (revival director Andrew Sinclair). I was hoping to be entertained.

On the night I got the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais - who was by-and-large right for the title role. There was enough drama and her voice hit all the right notes. Vissi d'arte was sensitively sung. Vittorio Grigòlo was his usual heroic self - at times his singing was a little shouty and lacking in finess. His fans loved him. Bless. Bryn Terfel brought Scarpia to live effortlessly. Unlike the other two leads, he was very much at ease with the role, with nothing to prove, and it was enjoyable to get absorbed into his character.

Alexander Joel's took a more symphonic approach to Puccini's score. There were movments when that approach worked with the drama. But there were times when the singers were being held for too long - thus losing the dramatic tension intended. Wa…

The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Royal Opera

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is a staged production (Muziektheater Transparant) of the song cycle by Janácek, with additional music by Annelies Van Parys. The Lindbury Theatre turned out to be the right size venue for this intimate production. Jan Versweyveld's set re-created a simple photographer's studio with subtle use of projections. The on stage movements were natural while recreating the love tension depicted in the songs.



Ed Lyon (man) and Marie Hamard (woman) delivered the song with sensitivity and the ocassional emotional outbursts (as with many Janácek's works). The linking music by Annelies Van Parys, while obviously modern, did work to turn this song cycle into an hour long piece of theatre.

Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera

OK it's not Puccini, but Giordano's work telling of this Les Mis drama is still worthy of today's opera houses. Roberto Alagna sang a heroic, at times shouty, Andrea Chénier (Jonas Kaufmann last tackled the role with far greater sensitivity). Sondra Radvanovsky was a wonderful Maddalena di Coigny who carried the role well from innocent aristocratic girl to lovelorn madame in revolutionary France. Carlo Gérard, sung by Dimitri Platanias, sounded great.



David McVicar's production really worked, from the sumptuous chateau opening scene through to an urban prison. Daniel Oren did a good job to bring out this richly score and seldom performed work to life. Glad to have seen it again.

La damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne

Did Berlioz intend to have La damnation de Faust staged? Perhaps he did. But the score had everything in it. So it's interesting to see any staged performance of this fantastic work.

What worked? I thought Richard Jones's direction for recreating various imaginary scenes on an austere stage set worked pretty well, from the beer halls along the Rhine through to Marguerite's prison. Christopher Purves was a good, not-too-intrusive Méphistophélès. Allan Clayton attacked the challenging role of Faust with sensitivity. Robin Ticciati waved his stick and the super LPO complied.



What didn't work? Sixty-odd singers in the chorus didn't do the work justice. Berlioz intended a big chorus sound. The velvety Songe de Faust sounded thin, and the big drinking song climax was disappointing. When Mark Elder did Faust recently with the Hallé (Feb 2019), there were over 100 men, plus a big children's chorus - Berlioz would like to have 200-300 children in the final scene - the …

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera

This was a new production of Britten Billy Budd. It was last staged at the Royal Opera before the turn of the millennium.



Billy Budd was sung by Jacques Imbrailo who portrayed a playful and naive youth well. His voice was in character, though seemed a little tired towards the end. Toby Spence gave us a nuanced and at times helpless Captain Vere. Brindley Sherratt's portrayal of Claggart was subtle, and his verminous streak really came out in the confrontation with Budd. Donald was sung by a muscular Duncan Rock.

Michael Levine's three dimensional set did the job, though the nautical theme relied heavily on the  20th century Royal Navy uniform. Ivor Bolton's reading of Britten's rich score was good - I loved the drums coming from the boxes during the battle scene. Let's hope they bring this great work back sooner.

All My Sons at The Old Vic

Got an unexpected chance to see this Arthur Miller play at The Old Vic with a starry cast. The play is set on a simple but detailed stage. All action evolved around the backyard of this simple house.



The first half of the play was slow. I thought the clues about the events to come were either too subtle, or too hidden. Either way, it took a long time for the audience to begin to realise something darker and complex was to come. Still, it took a while to get there.

The second half, on the other hand, moved much more quickly with greater dramatic effect. The best was probably the clash between Bill Pullman (who played Joe Keller) and Colin Morgan (his son Chris Keller). Colin Morgan's about turn from a love-struck puppy to a vengeful grown up was powerfully delivered. Jenna Coleman (played Chris Keller's love interest Ann Deever) and Sally Field (played Kate Keller) drew out the more emotionally torturous plot.

Was the "price of the American Dreram" laid bare? Not sur…

Faust at the Royal Opera

This is a revival of Charles Edwards (design) / David McVicar (director) production of Gounod Faust. Visually, it is still exciting to watch with the ever changing stage sets of this fantasy. In this production, Erwin Schrott was Méphistophélès - who had style and poise as this devilish character. Michael Fabiano did a good job at portraying Faust - especially in the first act when he had to start off as an old man before turning into an energetic youngster. Irina Lungu had the right French voice type for Marguerite - somewhat vulnerable with sufficient warmth for the romantic scenes.

Dan Ettinger in the pit kept the pace going, and the chorus did magnificently in those big numbers.

La forza del destino, Royal Opera

I read in the press that tickets for La forza del destino were available in the black market for £3,500 each. Ouch! Luckily mine was bought months ago directly from the Royal Opera.

The set design by Christian Schmidt started well in a 19th century palazzo in. The video projections were more distractions than anything. But I think they ran out of money because the same palazzo set was re-used just too often, including the final scene (it was supposed to be in a hermit!)



The star-studded cast delivered the goods. Anna Netrebko sang Leonara - her prima donna dramatic outbursts, impassioned lines and rich tone were perfect for this traumatised character. Perhaps she went to all the rehearsals after all. Jonas Kaufmann, as Don Alvaro, interpreted the character with poise. It's very easy to sing everything loudly. Yet Kaufamann observed the composer's typically detailed musical directions - and took some well judged artistic risk to deliver some vulnerable pianissimi. Not to be out…

Brahms 2nd Symphony and others, LPO

Tannhäuser at the start of this concert eased the audience into the Germanic sound world for the rest of this evening. It was well played, perhaps with a touch too much stiffness for such a luscious piece. Andreas Ottensamer the delivered some rich tones and fine clarinet solo playing in Weber's Clarinet Concerto No 1. This was followed by Alice Mary Smith's Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra - a bijou  work well worth listening for. Though I felt the Weber and Smith were a little under-rehearsed: the ensemble could be tighter and less timid. Brahms 2, on the other hand, was well rehearsed. Under Jurowski's firm grip, the orchestra played with intensity,  expansiveness and above all it sounded Germanic. How this related to the programme cover page "Isle of Noises", I don't know. But it was an enjoyable evening all the same.

Káťa Kabanová, Royal Opera

Katya, sung by Amanda Majeski, had the passionate timbre making her role convincing. Boris (Pavel Cernoch) was ok, and his duet with Majeski was a delight. Susan Bickley's Kabanova was steely and overpowering. Antony McDonald's design and Richard Jones's direction worked well together - the faux 70s decor and costumes added a certain softness to the harsh reality of the society Janáček portrayed. Edward Gardner did the score justice, bring out fabulous melodic lines, nature and the edgy textures.

Die Walküre, Jurowski and LPO

Stuart Skelton (Siegmund) and Ruxandra Donose (Sieglinde) made a good match in the first act, while Stephen Milling made a superb and dark Hunding. In the absence of staging, the orchestral colours shone through and it was a delight to hear it all. Svetlana Sozdateleva's Brünnhilde as firm, nuanced and had the emotional breadth to be convincingly half-god / half-human. Markus Marquardt's Wotan, sadly, was too subdue and introspective for my liking (I didn't see Das Rheingold, but I have heard stories of a certain bass-baritone staring at the score in performance).  I wonder whether we will get yet another Wotan / Wanderer in Siegfried later in the cycle.

This must be part of Vladimir Jurowski's preparation of his Ring cycles at future opera houses (Munich? Bayreuth?). Having checked with a few friends, we thought the LPO has not played the complete Ring for at least a few decades. Perhaps that's why it sounded bright, fresh and exciting.

The Queen of Spades, Royal Opera

I was quite looking forward to seeing and hearing this seldom performed gem of a piece. Thank goodness Pappano was at the helm to deliver an almost symphonic sound world with the overture. That was the good bit.

Why, oh why, we needed the composer to appear as a ghostly shadow to everything??? The duet between Gherman (Sergey Polyakov) and Lisa (Eva-Maria Westbroek) was lovingly sung, only to have a distracting composer loitering. The choreography and staging worked with the story line - except the ever present showy composer figure. If this production is to be revived, please DELETE the onstage composer!