Posts Tagged ‘Sophie Bevan’

Cunning Little Vixen, WNO, Cardiff, February 2013

25 February, 2013

This opera pits the timeless amorality of the natural world against the emotions and melancholy of human beings. The former is represented by the Vixen, her family, and other forest animals, the latter by Forester, Schoolmaster, Priest and Poacher.

Vixen and her Fox

Vixen and her Fox

In the original story by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, based on drawings by Stanislav Lolek, the Vixen lives on, but Janáček has the poacher kill her. This injects a tragic element into the story, yet the end result is the same: the natural world continues regardless of human intervention, and in the final scene where the Forester recalls true love from the springtime of his life, another vixen appears. As he reaches out to catch her, his hand clasps a little frog, who tells him he’s not the same one as before — that w-w-was his grandfather. The natural world is a constant, and while the Forester and other humans live with the memories of love they have lost, the animals know that the meaning of life is life itself.

In David Pountney’s 1980 production, with its designs by Maria Bjørnson, the natural world is pre-eminent, and a small space opens up for those moments when the humans control things: the yard at the Forester’s home, and the inn where the three friends drink together. Otherwise it is the outdoors, where Nick Chelton’s lighting shows the change of seasons and day alternating with night. At one point the snow disappears in a pretty stage trick that made me laugh — a light moment, and the opera is full of them. The story may be as deep as the sky, but the whole thing embraces three half-hour acts plus one interval. In the Czech Republic it is Janáček’s most popular opera.

Schoolmaster and Forester

Schoolmaster and Forester

Musically it’s a treat, and in Act II when the Vixen finds her Fox and opens up to the joy of life, Sophie Bevan and the orchestra rose to heights of lyrical perfection. Her love duet with Sarah Castle as the Fox was glorious, with the orchestra under Lothar Koenigs playing with Wagnerian intensity. Alan Oke made a wonderfully dry Schoolmaster with his steady melancholy, David Stout was very effective in his Act III appearance as the poacher, and Jonathan Summers was full of character and vocal assurance as the Forester. As the opera ended I wished for more intensity in those final musical chords, but Lothar Koenigs gave an intensely lyrical rendering of Janáček’s score.

Vixen's new family

Vixen’s new family

The production as a whole is a delight, and in Act I when the Vixen is tied up in the Forester’s yard, a dancer comes on to express her desire for freedom. Stuart Hopp’s choreography here fits the music to perfection, and Naomi Tadevossian showed true musicality in its performance. When the production was new it would have been a different dancer, as would be the children who played the small animals, but life goes on while human problems remain the same, and that is the point of this wonderful piece of Czech magical realism.

Performances continue at Cardiff, 26 Feb – 28 Feb; Birmingham Hippodrome, 7 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 14 Mar; The Mayflower, Southampton, 21 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 27 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 4 Apr — for details click here.

Siegfried, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, September 2012

30 September, 2012

Wotan’s meeting with Erda that starts Act III of Siegfried is a focal point in his demise.  After awakening her for advice she tells him to ask Brünnhilde, their daughter bold and wise, but learning Wotan has cast her aside, she asks why he who taught defiance punished defiance, why he who ruled by vows now rules by perjury. Wotan responds angrily, and in most productions Erda simply sinks back down into the earth, but in Keith Warner’s staging he stabs her in the side with his spear and she slumps over the side of her throne.

Act I, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

This deeply flawed Wotan, whose downfall may be represented by the crash-landed aeroplane we see in Act I, was superbly portrayed and sung by Bryn Terfel, and his encounters with Mime in Act I, Alberich in Act II, and Siegfried in Act III were beautifully represented. While Wotan is the key to this opera, the cast was a strong one despite the illness of Wolfgang Koch as Alberich, which led to an interesting last minute scramble.

According to Kasper Holten, who appeared on stage before the start, Koch informed the ROH this morning that he would be unable to sing, so they flew Jochen Schmeckenbecher in from Vienna. Holten smilingly told us he was already on his way through passport control, and from the wings in Act II, with Koch acting the role on stage, he gave a fine performance.

As Mime, Gerhard Siegel was in excellent voice, his acting superb, and in Act II this scheming liar dons an ass’s head whenever he speaks his true thoughts to Siegfried. This is a nice aspect of the production, as is the representation of Fafner. After he puts on the tarnhelm, turns into a dragon and is fatally wounded, Siegfried places the helm on the floor, lifts it up and the head continues to sing. Later he brings the dead head to stage front, placing it next to the body of Mime. While still alive, Eric Halfvarson sang a wonderful Fafner, his deep notes carrying an air of otherworldly wisdom and menace. Lovely singing from Sophie Bevan as the Woodbird, and her clever contemporaneous contortions on the trapeze were a wonder to behold.

Woodbird and Siegfried

She interacted well with Siegfried, whom Stefan Vinke portrayed to perfection as a strong brash fellow. His powerful singing had a great clarity of tone, and he seemed entirely at ease on stage. Sadly this was not so true for Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde, and though her voice showed charm, particularly in unaccompanied passages, her stage presence failed to convey the power of this role. Whether she will have the imperious glance to face down Gutrune in Act III of Götterdämmerung remains to be seen on Monday.

End of Act III

The orchestra was on top form under Antonio Pappano’s direction, giving great support to the singers, and I loved the percussion work by Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried as he tempers the sword. A wonderful performance all round, and such a pity that Bryn Terfel is now out of it. His response to the thunderous applause was admirably restrained, and he seems to be happy to be just one of an excellent team.

There are four Ring cycles, the final Siegfried being on October 31 — for details click here. There will also be a live broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday, October 21 at 2:45 pm, and Christmas broadcasts of Acts I, II and III on December 28, 31 and January 1 at 4:30 pm.

A Celebration of Ivor Novello, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2012

10 August, 2012

“A gentle, more elegant age” was how the BBC’s Katie Derham referred to the world of Ivor Novello in her brief introduction, quoting We’ll Gather Lilacs in connection with his funeral in 1951. After that we were placed in the very capable hands of Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra for a glorious late night concert.

They played superbly, and Simon Callow was a wonderful master of ceremonies reciting a quiver full of delightful anecdotes prepared by Paul Ibell. Apparently Novello went to jail during the war for misuse of petrol coupons by his chauffeur, and the judge decided that the usual £50 fine would not be enough. Anti-theatre, and anti-gay he sentenced the great artist to prison, who when he came out and appeared on stage again, received a three-minute standing ovation. This was while his hugely successful show The Dancing Years was playing, which as Callow told us was initially of some embarrassment to the appeasement policy of the British Government. Dancing Years, set in Austria, did not portray the Nazis favourably, but with Novello himself in the main role it was extraordinarily popular and we were treated to three of its songs.

The singers were Sophie Bevan, and Toby Spence bravely returning to the stage after an operation for thyroid cancer. It was a huge pleasure to see him perform again, and this was perhaps a cautious try-out. Lovely singing as usual, though he avoided some top notes, and was miked up for the encore. Ms Bevan’s voice is so beautifully pure and she was particularly sweet in I Can Give You The Starlight, yet apart from Why Isn’t It You she barely interacted with him.

After Toby Spence had opened with that old First World War favourite Keep The Home Fires Burning, we were taken on a lovely late evening tour of Novello’s music, ending with We’ll Gather Lilacs as an encore. Novello died suddenly a few hours after a performance and his ashes at the Golders Green Crematorium were laid beneath a lilac bush.

The performance will be broadcast on BBC2 at 8 p.m. on Saturday, 11 August 2012.

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, January 2012

29 January, 2012

For those who love this Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration, the programme booklet contains an interesting essay by Mike Reynolds, describing the vital contributions by Hofmannsthal’s collaborator, Count Harry Kessler. This well-connected and talented man, who was brought up in France, England and Germany, chose the plot and had a huge influence on its structure and realisation. The result inspired Strauss to create one of the most glorious operas ever written, and in Ronald Harwoood’s play Collaboration when the 80-year old Strauss is faced by allied soldiers at his house in 1945, he says, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier“.

The silver rose in Act II, all images by Clive Barda

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act I

Such a fabulous opera deserves performances of the highest calibre, and we had some here at the ENO. John Tomlinson is perhaps the finest Baron Ochs I have ever seen, giving this dreadful character a boorish aplomb that never goes over the top, and his diction, as ever, renders surtitles superfluous. He finds his match in the Octavian of Sarah Connolly, who invests this travesti role with youthful rambunctiousness, and sings with glorious power.  And then there is the Sophie of Sophie Bevan, who after a nervous start in Act II sang with quiet charm, floating her high notes above the confusion created by Ochs. Her meek responses to the Marschallin in Act III were enunciated with a tension that will remain with me as a template for all future performances of this opera. The Marschallin herself was Amanda Roocroft, a singer I have admired greatly as E.M. in Makropulos,  as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, and more recently as Eva in Meistersinger, but she has yet to inhabit the present role. I liked the wistfulness she showed in Act I after Octavian has left and she suddenly realises her little joke may kill their amours, and again in Act III her acceptance that the affair with Octavian is now over, but her portrayal needed more gravitas, and her appearance to quieten the confusion in Act III, which can be a high point of the opera, fell rather flat.

Amanda Roocroft in Act I

Musically the performance flowed with great charm under the baton of Edward Gardner, who gave fine support to the singers and produced magnificent climaxes from the orchestra at suitable moments, such as after Octavian leaves in Act I, and in the final Act.

The supporting roles were performed with great panache, the scheming Valzacchi and Annina well portrayed by Adrian Thompson and Madeleine Shaw, who whirled elegantly to the waltz time of the music as she handed the letter to Ochs towards the end of Act II. Marianne Leitmetzerin had great stage presence as Sophie’s duenna, prodding her charge with a fan to keep her on track in the conversation with Octavian, and Gwyn Hughes Jones was super as the Italian singer at the Marschallin’s levée in Act I. As Sophie’s father Faninal, Andrew Shore bristled with restrained emotion, and as he walked over to embrace his daughter towards the end of Act III he invested the moment with heartfelt reality.

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act III

This is a revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production, which comes from Scottish Opera, and I’m afraid I have reservations. Could someone please tell the supers not to run round pointing rifles at Ochs in Act III — this is the Austro-Hungarian empire, not the wild west — and Faninal offers Ochs a very old tokai, not a brandy. Tokai is a lovely sweet wine from Hungary, low in alcohol, just right for that time of day. Why can’t Alfred Kalisch, the translator keep with the original? And while on the topic why does he introduce claret when Ochs lies wounded on the couch? The text says nothing of claret, and in any case it was not served in a claret bottle.

These irritations aside, the scene for the presentation of the silver rose with Octavian in silver armour had a fairy-tale charm, and the musical quality of the performance makes this a must-see, particularly with the glorious representations of Ochs and Octavian by Tomlinson and Connolly.

Wonderful stuff, but be aware that performances, which continue until February 27, start at 6:30, or 5:30 on Saturdays — for details click here.

Castor and Pollux, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2011

25 October, 2011

Originally composed in 1737 this opera was revised in 1754 and subsequently became Rameau’s most popular. Castor and Pollux are brothers, the former mortal, the latter immortal, and the start of the story is roughly that Castor is adored by Phoebe and her sister Telaira, who is betrothed to Pollux. He gives her up so she can marry his brother, but Phoebe arranges for Castor’s abduction and he is killed. All this is in the first of five acts, and was omitted from the original 1737 composition, which instead included a prologue involving Mars, Venus and other gods.

Pollux kils his brother's killer, all photos Alastair Muir

Quite rightly the ENO is putting on the revised version, with Christian Curnyn conducting the orchestra in a raised pit so that the sound comes out more clearly, and musically this was delightful. Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams were wonderfully strong as Castor and Pollux, carrying off their roles to perfection, and Sophie Bevan was a charmingly pure voiced Telaira. Rameau was a contemporary of Handel, but his music is quite different, eschewing recitatives and arias in favour of a harmonically intriguing development of the music.

Telaira with the dead Castor

This is an opera about deeply troubled characters, about melancholy and loss. The spurned Phoebe tells her sister that she, Phoebe will recover Castor from Hades if Telaira relinquishes her love for him, but in fact only Pollux can bring Castor back, and only by giving up immortality and taking his brother’s place.  This he does, but Castor will not leave his brother, and promises to return after only a day on earth. After reuniting with Telaira he attempts to return to Hades, but in the end Jupiter annuls Castor’s promise, brings Pollux back and the brothers are turned into stars, leaving Telaira alone in her grief.

The production by Barrie Kosky has some nice aspects. I liked the very realistic fight sequence when Castor was killed, and again when Pollux killed his killer. I liked the representation of Hades in mounds of earth, I liked the starlight falling on two empty pairs of shoes at the end, while Telaira is left abandoned, and I liked the huge wooden box structure in which all the action takes place. However, I was sitting in the central section, and friends on the side said their view was badly obscured. This is important because the action goes right across the interior of the box, and from the sides of the auditorium you can’t see it all.

Masked chorus from Hades

Other aspects of the production seemed over the top. When the chorus appeared in long masks it reminded me of a different opera I saw in Germany recently, and indeed Barrie Kosky works in Berlin. A German production of a French opera based on themes from Greece and Rome sounds rather like the Euro, and it didn’t all make sense. It may appeal to those who relish the idea of seeing a woman pull her knickers down on stage, first one pair then another — I counted six in one case — to say nothing of full frontal nudity of men and women with long hair hanging over their faces, or indeed fingers emerging from Hades to penetrate Phoebe. If you like that sort of thing you may love it. I didn’t. And I do wish opera houses would make sure their producers understand that the production should be visible from everywhere in the auditorium. Covent Garden made the same error with a production of Tristan by a German director, and I hope this is a mistake the ENO will only make once.

Having said all this, though, I applaud a wonderful musical presentation of what is probably Rameau’s operatic masterpiece.

Running time is two and three-quarter hours, and performances continue until December 1 — for details click here.

Radamisto, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, October 2010

8 October, 2010

On 27th April 1720, a month before his sixtieth birthday, King George I attended the opera with his son the Prince of Wales. They’d only recently reunited after not speaking to one another for three years, so this was just the right opera to see. The king, Farasmane and his son Radamisto are in dire danger of losing their lives to the crazily emotional actions of a tyrant, Tiridate, king of Armenia, whose wife is Radamisto’s sister — the names are those of historical figures, but the personalities are not. Moreover Handel wrote this opera for the newly created Royal Academy of Music, whose directors favoured stories of love defeating the naked ambition of a ruthless conqueror.

Zenobia begs Radamisto to kill her

The young queens, Zenobia wife of Radamisto, and Polissena wife of Tiridate, are vital characters in the plot, both beautifully sung by Christine Rice and Sophie Bevan. Radamisto was sung by a woman in the original production, but here we had American counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo who was excellent, and I do prefer such roles to be sung by a man rather than a woman. The other two male singers were superb too. Ryan McKinny sang very strongly as Tiridate, with fine stage presence and excellent diction, and Henry Waddington gave an equally wonderful performance in the much smaller bass role of King Farasmane. The one other character, Tigrane — an ally of Tiridate — was also very well sung by Ailish Tynan. A further role for Tiridate’s brother was cut from Handel’s revised version, which was performed here. Tigrane is infatuated with Tiridate’s wife Polissena, and acts as something of a unifying force, while Tiridate, who’s insanely in love with Radamisto’s wife Zenobia, is purely destructive, “From the hands of those I slaughter I will snatch a victor’s crown”.

Tiridate and Radamisto, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

The trouble with this opera is the weak ending. It builds up to an impossible situation, when suddenly Tiridate’s wife enters to say that his troops are abandoning him, so he admits having behaved very badly and thanks his erstwhile enemies for their kind understanding. Not a brilliant ending, but the music is wonderful and Laurence Cummings conducted with huge enthusiasm and excellent control of the proceedings. Musically this was a real treat.

Radamisto is not often performed, and the first twentieth century revival in Britain was not until 1960. The performance attracted strong applause, as did the new production by David Alden — a joint production with the Santa Fe Opera — apart from objections from a few audience members at the end. I didn’t understand the objections, so I asked one man what he didn’t like about it, to which I got the response that he didn’t like anything about the production. Did he not like the lighting by Rick Fisher? I thought it was wonderful. Did he not like the designs by Gideon Davy? I thought the Eastern style costumes were lovely, particularly Tiridate’s, and as for the late Ottoman white suit for Tigrane, that was obviously meant to be deliberately anachronistic. And the sets? I thought they were super. It’s a colourful production, easy on the eye, and the occasional body pierced by arrows is a reminder that while this family feud goes on, a lot of people die. Not a bad lesson, and remember that this opera’s opening night was witnessed by the future King George II with his music loving father George I, at the conclusion of one of their feuds. Handel had been Kapellmeister to George when he was Elector of Hanover, but then moved to London, so it must have felt like a family reunited when George became King of Britain.

Performances continue until November 4 — click here for more details.