Wednesday, 30 December 2009

He's no Santa, but you wouldn't want to end up on his naughty list

A quick reminder for those of you who can receive S4C Digital (I'm sure it's on the Sky contraption box) that Bryn Terfel's recent Bad Boy's concert at St David's Hall is on this evening at 8.25pm. Running at a generous 90 minutes it's more than a token offering and should make for a handy night in for people who couldn't make it or who had a run-in with train furniture. If only Scarpia had become a safety inspector for Arriva Trains Wales...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Cardiff Singer off the World Победитель Ekaterina Scherbachenko to appear at Covent Garden

Way back in the middle of the year when I believed fellow bus / train / hot air balloon passengers' confident inside knowledge of a hot and sunny summer to come I spent a week sat in the Comfiest Seats in Showbiz (TM) during the BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year 2009 competition at St David's Hall. The eventual winner was Russia's Ekaterina Scherbachenko (aka Golden Cheekbones) who had me jelly legged after her Liù stylee number (that note's still ringing in my memory). She'd marked most judges cards with her earlier heat rendition of Tatyana's Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin and folks at Covent Garden will get to see her in the flesh as Tatyana come August 2010 as the Bolshoi Ballet & Opera Company take up a brief residency.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Fancy yourself a McVicar?

For the sake of the children, don't feed Santa last year's mince pies.

Ever thought that you could do better than the singers on stage? Well now you can, or at least you can if it's Carmen you fancy bossing around with some puppet finger madness from Custom Works. If you'd prefer something bigger than Tom Thumb then they've got a range of larger dolls including Beethoven and a dapper Puccini.

In case you're wondering, no, I am not taking any backhanders for this post – but if their sales rocket then I would, under duress (let it be said many times) accept a token of respect...but one glance at my blog hits has "wishful thinking" ringing in my ears.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

They don't make them like this anymore - Domingo shoots the breeze with Yentob

Placido reacts with genuine enthusiasm after my audition for Washington National Opera

Thankfully not all the hours on television are given over to talent shows, reality programmes, soaps... (fill in the list with your own grumbles) - sometimes tiny shards of quality make it to the screen and tonight is one of those occasions. Alan Yentob, not a man unfamiliar with the world of opera during his time making the Imagine programmes, has been at it again picking the brains of Placido Domingo. No preview tapes were available at the time of writing as I'm not a journalist or BBC insider but at a rough guess I'll say the programme is centred on PD's recent debut as a baritone in Simon Boccanegra.

For viewers in Wales please note that the programme begins thirty minutes later while folks in Scotland and Northern Ireland you'll have to wait an hour.

While I'm not giving Charlie Brooker a run for his money I thought I'd point out a few other operatic small screen appearances over the holiday season. The recent ROH production of Tchaikovsky's The Tsarina's Slippers will be shown on BBC 2 on Christmas Eve at 2.15pm. Securing the afternoon slot on Christmas Day itself is the recent Netrebko / Villazon film version of La Boheme on BBC2 at 4.10pm. The last sighting of anything minus an X-Factor contestant is Bryn Terfel's recent Bad Boys concert at St David's Hall, showing on S4C at 8.25pm on the 30th of December under the title of Bryn Terfel: Cyngerdd y Bechgyn Drwg.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Getting to know you...

Hand on heart my first ever single I bought was Stu Francis' classic rendition of "Ooh, I could crush a grape!" and the first LP I bought was Shakin Stevens' "Green Door" – not exactly the natural way into opera, nor were doses of The Cure, Tori Amos, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Blake Babies, BB King, Robert Cray…you get what I'm trying to say, right?

There are countless ways of coming to the world of opera – or any other music genre for that matter, but getting to know who, and what's what, can be a daunting prospect with something that's been around a bit longer than electricity. But you needn't gulp loudly and think you're in for a lot of brow furrowing times reading tomes and listening to talks given in libraries.

First and foremost opera is music, with acting thrown into the bargain. Even if you've never sat through an opera, or even half a one odds are you'll have come across it in some way. Television, films and advertising are full of the stuff – and with the World Cup on the horizon you can bet that there'll be the odd montage used.

So if you're harbouring an interest in it getting into opera what should you do? As with most things the answer is – anything. For some people jumping in head-first and going along to a staged opera will be ideal while for others buying a recording of an opera with a libretto will be more their thing (in case you're wondering a libretto is a chunky booklet with the low down on the plot and all the words / lyrics that are sung – especially handy if you don't speak too many languages and haven't got the hearing abilities of a bat). Whatever you do just remember to enjoy it, and not feel overawed, and especially don't feel you have to prostrate yourself in honour to the music. Enjoy it.

Okay, so if you've decided to take option a and go along to see one in the flesh you're thinking, "Where should I go?" The answer to this question can be found closer to home than you think. Most people will have heard of The Royal Opera and Covent Garden – and quite rightly so – but for many people a trip to London can be too expensive to see something they're not sure of. But help is at hand in the form of several smaller opera companies dotted throughout this humpbacked pig shaped island of ours. Starting off with the pig head there is WNO that though based in Cardiff tours throughout Wales with extensive forays across the border. Opera North represents the lower part of the hump, while the upper part of the hump can be found with Scottish Opera. The beauty of these smaller companies is that they travel around enough to reach most parts of Pig Island while not charging a lot for their efforts.

Okay, the bit that everyone worries about their first time. Dress code. Unless you've got a thing for Superman / Naughty Nurse costumes pretty anything else goes. Some people like to go the whole hog and bow tie / ball gown the evening while others prefer a suit, which is fine by me. Personally, I'm a jeans man myself (though I do like the odd ball gown now and again) and have turned up to the opera houses of London, Vienna, Budapest and of course Cardiff in varying degrees of colour and bagginess of the blue stuff without an ounce of embarrassment. Wear what you like – if someone does a raising of their nose to you just shrug your shoulders and remember the line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off – "It's understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself."

Once you're sat and the curtain comes up it can help if you know a bit about what happens in the opera beforehand, but on the other hand going with the flow can be a bit of an adventure. To help things along surtitles are shown above the stage giving an idea of what's being sung on stage. Don't worry if you get lost now and then – it'll have happened to everyone at some point. Okay, one slightly important thingage. Clapping. To be on the safe side wait until everyone else claps during the performance – but only if you feel like it. But come the end of the night, which can be between two and three hours plus it is the done thing to applaud the performers even if they didn't rock your boat – they've tried their best after all.

If you've gone for option b – buying a recording – there are several ways to go about this. You can splash some serious(ish) cash on the more expensive recordings out there, or you can buy recordings from smaller labels like Naxos. Increasingly though the larger labels are re-releasing their catalogues without libretti at affordable prices. A good source for libretti on the internet is the EMI Classics website that has a fair few free libretti on offer, or you can buy single libtretti for a few quid. But hang on! Aren't we in the age of DVD? Yep. And you can buy pretty much any opera on DVD – but prices do vary so shop around to get the best for your wallet. If you like your opera big sized you can catch The Met Live in HD in cinemas, But for the freebie lovers keep an eye on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday evenings.

So there you are – a brief introduction into introducing yourself to opera. I won't give a list of what you should see / listen / watch as my tastes aren't yours. If you try it and it isn't for you then don't worry. If you try it and you love it then great! But at least give it a try. And okay, I will drop one name into the ring of an opera that is very much a firm favourite with audiences the world over, and it will include a couple of ditties you're bound to know...Carmen.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

And so it is Christmas...(sort of)

No mince pies for you after midnight

With the year coming to a close and the traditional festive gales upon us I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane and pick out my operatic highlights of the year. Dragging this old chestnut of an idea out in November is a bit like carols in September, but I've decided to plough on regardless. For those of you expecting a top ten list I'm sorry to disappoint but I'll be head scratching like a mad scientist if I tried to choose any single performance, so I'll stick to fence sitting and splinters…

In many ways this has been my coming out year in terms of Wagner – despite the odd quibble here and there by some critics I was hooked by the ROH production of Der fliegende Holländer earlier in the year. Everything seemed to fall into place – the generous casting (Bryn Terfel, Anja Kampe and Hans-Peter König) the set design and direction, conducting and of course who could forget the music? As introductions to Wagner goes I think it's an ideal piece that affords the audience a hint of what to expect from his later works…as long as you catch his later works being performed properly. I'll say no more about I Know What You Did Last Summer

Sticking with ROH productions it's going to be hard to ever forget Il barbiere di Siviglia with Joyce "Hard as Nails" Di Donato singing through the pain barrier (and later from a wheelchair) with a cast (living, not pink) that lived up to all the hype; Juan Diego Florez, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Alessandro Corbelli and Pietro Spagnoli as a great late replacement for Simon Keenlyside who returned to sing in another cast bursting at the seems with talent in Don Carlo. Jonas Kaufmann led the line expertly with Marina Poplavskaya carving arias exquisitely and Ferruccio Furlanetto playing an altogether more complex baddie.

For the soprano / mezzo loving guy that I am I was richly spoiled with the pairing of Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca in I Capuleti e i Montecchi – it was as if I'd dived into a swimming pool full of the creamiest chocolate known to mankind.

Not everyone's favourite production of Carmen gave me second helpings of Garanca and firsts of Roberto Alagna in a three hour "name that tune" fest that certainly had me humming for days on end afterwards (tunes that is, not donkey doo). Complaints were made about the lascivious nature of Garanca's Carmen, but speaking as a male of the species I can't say I was all that offended...

Scariest moment of the ROH year however must go to Bryn Terfel's Scarpia and his "Tre sbirri, una carozza" skit from Tosca – such a shame that Puccini went and spoiled it by having Angela Gheorghiu going all Kill Bill on him.

Other London highlights included Berlioz's Faust with Joyce "Still as Hard as Nails" Di Donato and super super super-sub Willard White while ENO's superb Turn of the Screw was dripping in atmosphere from the get-go.

But London wasn't my only port of call this year and the Hungarian State Opera offered up an inventive production of Handel's Xerxes that made me forget the hardest seat I've ever sat on in my life – and I have to mention the relatively unknown Gabriella Fodor who excelled in her role as Romilda.

The numero uno highlight of my non-UK excursions though was catching Anna Netrebko as Violetta in Vienna with Joseph Calleja and Vladimir Stoyanov as Love Thang and Papa Love Thang's extraordinaire. I'll just stick to "marvellous" and move on. A big thank you to my fellow international queees on the day for making it a wonderful experience – especially to the Viennese local who offered me a stool.

And then there was WNO - the whole reason why I've become interested in opera. Battling the likes of the Royal Opera House and the Wien Staatsoper with their starry role calls of singers and conductors you'd think they'd struggle to compete – but I'm proud to say they certainly didn't. Performances of Salome and Le nozze di Figaro were devoured by audiences, not forgetting the Charles Mackerras conducted Mitridate with Aleksandra Kurzak and Emma Bell.

But my personal WNO highlight of 2009 has to be the revival of Richard Jones' take on Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. I'm not exaggerating when I say the production (with the exception of a slightly large skeleton) would not have been out of place on any international stage. Misha Didyk and Tatiana Monogarova may not be names familiar to many people but they gave heartfelt and thrilling performances, aided and abetted by Alexander Polianichko conducting and the likes of Ann Murray, David Solari, Tomas Tomasson and WNO's very own David Soar. A very large gripe I have is that S4C in their agreement to record a WNO production every year missed out on a wonderful opportunity to capture WNO at its best.

Closing out this year I can't, of course, not mention BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year 2009. For a whole week I was treated to some thigh slapping seriously good singing from some thigh slapping seriously promising singers. The finalists you will (I hope) remember – Ekaterina Scherbachenko (the winner), Yuri Minenko (the nearly winner), Jan Martiník (Song Prize Winner), Eri Nakamura (ROH Jette Parker Young Artist / pocket rocket) and Giordano Luca (seven year itch).

But what of those who didn't make it through? Katherine Tier of Australia should be Wagnering your soul in the coming years if her rendition of Wesendonck Lieder No. 3 is anything to go by. I hope Bulgarian Emiliya Ivanova will be travelling around a lot more after her performance of Gounod's "Je veux vivre". Javier Arrey should have made the Concert Final in my books although he did make it to the Song Prize Final as did the sassy Swansea lassy Natalya Romaniw who, for the record, is Welsh, despite what some people thought. Anyone else? Dana Bramane is another name to follow and...oh just take a look at the video clips and keep your eyes peeled for them all over the coming years! Apologies for you who live outside the UK but the BBC I- (don't) Player only works in the UK.

On a sad note it was announced earlier this month that competition founder J Mervyn Williams died at the age of 74. To read a warmly written tribute pop along to the BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year website.

So it's been a superb musical year that sadly has to end…and next year? That can wait, apart from savouring the performances from this year I've still got to squeeze a few more!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Ow! Then Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Get out your violins and pack the submachine gun in its case - thanks to the equation of metal bar + kneecap = swollen knee I am, instead of making my way merrily to St Davids Hall to see Bryn Terfel in concert, sitting at home holding a sandwich bag full of frozen peas on my knee. I've used up every known swear word in the English language, invented a couple more and regressed to around about eight years of age in the space of a few hours and am only now (vaguely) acting my real age - which is far bigger than anyone's shoe size.

The cause of the indisposition? No - I don't owe loan shark Mad Lou any money - instead it's the idiotic design of train tables. Do the people who invent these things ever consider the fact that people have to propel themselves out from a seat using at least some forward motion? How about using a table that doesn't require a forest of hidden metal bars? How about padding them in some way? How about I be more careful in future? Ummmm, no - it's far easier to blame someone else for my knee.

Thankfully the concert is being recorded for TV - which is a tiny crumb of comfort at the moment.

I'd better be off as the peas are defrosting, but before I do I hope that everyone who's off to the concert tonight has a great time.

Okay, I'm lying.

I hope there's an electrical failure causing the performance to be rescheduled for a later date. Isn't that what one of Bryn's Bad Boys would say?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Demon Barber of Queen Street

Potentially hairy business is afoot at HMV Cardiff next Tuesday morning as Bryn "Menace II Society" Terfel swaps Sweeny Todd's razor for a much nicer Bic as he signs copies of his new CD Bad Boys instore (11.00am in case you were wondering).

Less than sixteen hours earlier he'll have kicked off his UK tour at St David's Hall where he'll be sharing the stage with some of the more colourful malcontents of the musical world including Scarpia and Mefistofele / Mephistopheles.

Having listened to the CD a few times I can confirm that Big Bryn T is indeed a Bad Boy extraordinaire, but I'm a bit disappointed that there was no collaboration with Will Smith.

For more inside skinny you can pop along to DGG's Bad A$$ mini-site.

Monday's concert is being recorded for future broadcasting on S4C - so if you miss the show you know where to go!

(Apologies for an unpoetic use of rhyme)

Thursday, 22 October 2009

If it smells off, then more than likely it is off...

Artist's (not quite accurate) impression...

For those of you waiting for my reviews of Letters of a Love Betrayed and Porgy and Bess I can only offer apologies for the likelihood of there not being any.

Due to the "it smells a bit funny but it should be okay to eat" part of my brain taking over while I inspected a piece of cheese earlier this week my concert trips have been sidelined while the side-effects of stupidity took over.

As I'm off to London tomorrow for the weekend I won't be skipping down to the Armadillo in time to see Cape Town Opera...they're in good company though as I missed Tristan und Isolde at the ROH earlier this week due to travel complications.

I'll never doubt another "indisposed" notice in my life...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Cape Town Opera – Porgy and Bess WMC

Of course this has been acquired from the WMC - where else would I go?

If you've travelled through Cardiff in recent weeks you'll more than likely have seen the colourful billboard advertisements for Cape Town Opera and their coming visit to the Armadillo to continue the 5th Anniversary Celebrations. Though you could call this the double birthday event as CTO are celebrating their 10th Anniversary this year.

Taking up residence from Wednesday until Saturday they are performing the Gershwin / Heyward / Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess – transplanting the drama from Southern California to Cape Town during the recent apartheid era. For an illuminating read about the production and the company you can do no worse than reading an article by Louise Jury of the London Evening Standard – either at the Standard's website or on CTO's own website.

After Cardiff the company will head for the Festival Hall in London for a pair of semi-staged gigs before heading up to Edinburgh and the Festival Theatre for a fully staged performance (which is what we're getting at the Armadillo if you're wondering).

The folks at the WMC have been busy getting bits and pieces together again and you can find them magically here...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Letters of a Love Betrayed - Sherman Theatre

This time it's the Sherman I'm borrowing from...

Opera in the Cardiff area isn't only located at the WMC - the Sherman Theatre plays host to small companies and next Tuesday (20th of October) it will open its doors to Music Theatre Wales. Playing for one night only in a brief UK tour is the brand spanking shiny new opera, Letters of a Love Betrayed by Eleanor Alberga and Donald Sturrock - based on a short story by Isabel Allende.

The work had its premiere at the Linbury Studio Theatre as part of a collaboration between MTW and ROH2. If you fancy popping along you can get tickets from the Sherman Theatre website in English, or Welsh. In case you're scratching your head thinking - "How can an orchestra fit inside the Sherman?" - the answer is that it's a chamber orchestra, playing an evening of South American rhythms.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

What's the big Welsh dude singing about now?

Now the dust has settled and the Mariinsky have moved on and Bryn Terfel's taking up golf I thought a bit of introspection was needed after the weekend. I'm not usually one to get carried away with performances and after re-reading my posts there was one angle to the weekend that did irritate me just a bit.

Like most people I'll always have a listen to something before heading out to a concert, opera or gig. Usually it's just to get in the mood or to remind me of a plot detail. This past weekend the need was a touch more vital as for some reason there were no surtitles on offer.

I could understand it on the first evening with the first part of the concert, but not with the second part or for any of the other evenings. I'm not sure if there was any technical reason for this decision but to not have surtitles was a strange decision. Though I was comfortable where things were at plot-wise during the Wagner and the Tchaikovsky without a line by line commentary I still would have liked the choice of having that extra bit of detail to enjoy the drama of the moment. As for the Verdi I'd decided to enjoy the music and nothing else beforehand. I haven't got a clue how any firstimers would have felt.

I know that the WMC made synopsis sheets available on each evening, and even had the libretti for downloadable use on their website - but the last thing I'd want to have is someone flipping through sheets of paper next to me during a performance; sweet wrappers are bad enough. Perhaps next time they could see to having the words returned to Stage Above?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Mariinsky Verdi Requiem WMC

You'll know the score by now - nabbed from the WMC

And so the final day of the Mariinsky weekend came around. Beginning at the curious early start time of 5.00pm the building filled rapidly – the only problem was that Valery Gergiev had the doors closed while he did his patented last minute rehearsal technique so that the start time was somewhere around the 5.20pm time.

With the doors closed a weak point in the WMC furniture plan became quickly apparent – apart from a few seats in each of the bars there is actually very limited seating space around the performance floors and perhaps in future it would be an idea to add a few more here and there, especially since a lot of the audience were over the age of seventy and had walked up several flights of stairs. Just a thought...

Of all the performances this was the one that had sold out in the true sense of the word. I couldn't see an empty seat in the entire house, which is the first time I can honestly say that.

And now a bit more honesty. Although I've got a recording of the Verdi Requiem on CD I've long held off listening to it simply because I wanted to hear it in the flesh – so my impressions are based on what I heard, and not what I should have heard. I hope you're catching my drift.

Risking their ear drums the four soloists, Bryn Terfel, tenor Sergei Semishkur, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova and soprano Viktoria Yastrebova headed out on to the stage followed by Gergiev – behind them the mass of Mariinsky choral and orchestral might, in front of them...uh... an audience waiting for music.

There was a great touch from Gergiev at the beginning when eschewing his usual bow to the audience and get on with it pattern of performance he waited for several, several seconds until there really was a silence to begin with.

What followed was an hour and a half of arresting music. Having spent a lot of time listening to Verdi in general, and to Don Carlo specifically in recent weeks, I felt at home with the music even if the soloists were singing in Latin. Of all the soloists it was Semishkur who made the greatest impression with his strong and clean tenor. Terfel played his role with ease and Gubanova brought an assurance of technique and poise to the stage. Yastrebova, singing for the third night in a row (I'm guessing the Mariinsky have high hopes for her) shared in some captivating 'duets' with Gubanova.

Sitting where I was, I was glad not be any closer to the stage when Gergiev touched the EXPLODE button on the orchestra and chorus. Thrilling, violent, vivid. Even a thrash music lover would have been impressed. I feared for the structural integrity of the hall though as I'd heard one or two loud cracks from above during the past two evenings – but such was the fireball coming from the orchestra I'm not sure if even an airplane would have registered on the Richter scale.

When Yastrebova uttered her final passage and Gergiev drew the orchestra to rest the silence that fell was testament to what we had all heard. Even the compulsive clapper who began to applaud after two seconds or so had passed by in resonant silence stopped as if in recognition that the music and the performance demanded a few more moments of appreciation before applause could begin, which it did in abundance.

The weekend had been the beginning of the fifth birthday celebrations for the WMC and it couldn't have been given a better party. In the programme that accompanied all three evenings I read that the WMC and the Mariinsky have signed a five year strategic deal, which I hope means that we'll get to see the Theatre again in one form or another very soon, as it's been a weekend to savour.

A final thought - it is a shame that in an age when many performances are recorded that the weekend passed by without at least S4C or BBC Wales making a trip so that those people who couldn't get a ticket, or afford a ticket, could have enjoyed a little taste of the performances, because if this visit by the Mariinsky can't help to pull people into opera venues and concert halls then nothing ever will.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Mariinsky Nutcracker / Iolanta WMC

The crowds were inevitably down on last night given that Bryn Terfel was having a night off, which was a shame because the absentees missed another gourmet evening. After last night's concert my expectations were high for the Tchaikovsky evening. After all, the Mariinsky were playing works written, more or less, for their company.

The Nutcracker kicked the evening off in great style, though it has to be said that as wonderful as the music is there are parts when you wish there were dancers on the stage to fill in the lull time. Thankfully the orchestra was again in Rolls Royce form with exemplary playing from the wind section. After two + hours of playing even Gergiev needed a break and took the briefest of applause as he headed off for a munch.

The second part of the evening was a performance of Iolanta a simple little thing but with a few gems that deserve to be more widely known. In the title role Viktoria Yastrebova took a while to get going but the folks around me took to her in droves. As her love thang Sergei Skorokhodov literally got into character as Vaudemont, a Burgundian Count, turning an alarming shade of red as he hit the slopes for his notes. Despite his chameleonesque physiognomy he sang well and hit his most important notes with conviction. Alexei Markov once again stamped his authority with an electrifying aria that brought the house down and a grin from the man himself as he took his seat. He was good and he knew it. He's a superb singer and it's a shame we haven't heard more of him. All three were more than ably supported by an excellent and if you follow this link you'll be taken to a page where you can download the weekend's events and all their names – but Sergei Alexashkin deserves to be singled out for praise as King René.

By the end the clock was nudging eleven pm when the transparent curtain fell (there isn't one) and the applause was just as warm as it had been the first evening. Though the seats emptied around me at a rapid rate of knots this was one Gergiev overrun that I was pleased to have caught, and the man himself seemed to be enjoying himself as he pointed comically towards an imaginary watch as the singers lapped up their well deserved cheers.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Mariinsky / Bryn Terfel Opera Gala WMC

Photo still nabbed from the WMC

Way back in the summer, or the less rainy season as I'm beginning to think of it, I tramped down to London to catch the Mariinsky Theatre's Wagner Cycle in Covent Garden with high hopes. After four nights I left with dashed hopes. I'll refrain from reliving the bad memories, but trust me when I say they are bad. I'd booked tickets for this evening many months beforehand and I was never going to relinquish them, especially with Bryn Terfel singing the role of Wotan – but I was filled with a certain sense of tumultuous apprehension as to what I would be faced with...

The evening was split in two – the first part was a mixture of arias and orchestral pieces from Russian, French and Italian composers. I'll keep things short and mention the highlights so I don't asleep at the keyboard and have QWERTY imprinted on my face backwards when I wake in the morning.

Alexei Markov was the most impressive soloist of the first part of the evening with both his arias (Gryaznoi’s aria - The Tsar’s Bride & the final scene from Eugene Onegin). But he wasn't the only singer on show to catch my ear - Sergei Skorokhodov had a pleasing timbre to his voice, if a little strained at the top of his register; Zhanna Dombrovskaya, Skorokhodov's partner in crime for ‘Sulla tomba che rinserra’ (Lucia di Lammermoor) has a voice made for bel canto; Sergei Alexashkin, the veteran of the group, gave a characterful rendition of The Old Gypsy’s Tale from Rachmaninov's Aleko and last of all there was Viktoria Yastrebova. She gave notice of what she is capable of in the Eugene Onegin final scene with Markov. She's returning as Iolanta tomorrow evening when I hope to get a better handle on her voice.

I'm going to be reading keys on my face at this rate. Onwards to the second part!

So here it was – the litmus test of all litmus tests. Would Gergiev and Co make a comeback not seen since Bobby Ewing? Would they be walking out of a shower talking about a crazy dream of London? First off the Valkyries – a lot more thrilling than they had been last time round. Mlada Khudolei reprising her Sieglinde produced a worthwhile cameo – but I hope for her sake she is allowed to escape from Wagner for a while as she is such a young(ish) singer (and could someone have told her which exit to use?). Singing opposite papa Wotan was Larisa Gogolevskaya – the better of the three Brünnhilde's used in London. Where she tired in the Covent Garden performance of Götterdämmerung she was able to keep pace well this evening and if sometimes she neared a screech too many I'm willing to cut her slack given that this is Wagner and she had the full orchestral weight of the Mariinsky two yards behind her.

Apologies for the stunted writing but I'm getting a bit tired and my bed is calling me...

Into this Russian / Germanic mix strode a large Welshman. I'll really cut this short as I may go over the top in praise...In short, he gave a lesson in the art of how to sing Wagner with colours and not as a loudspeaker. My German is, ummm...I have no German, but even so his diction was superb, biting the ends of words peculiar to the language in a rattrap manner. When he was angry, he was angry. When he was tender, he was tender. You knew it. Instinct told you it. His voice told you it (getting carried away now...). And if his voice didn't tell you then his body did. No great waving of arms, just a subtle raising of the head, turning of the back – glowering at Valkyries.

Supporting the drama was Gergiev and his orchestra. In London they had been sloppy, tonight they were taut, ready for the drama and in the silences you could feel the tension they had created in the audience as pins dropped onto bated breaths. This was Wagner as it should be. Humane, yet full of dread and sorrow.

When the final notes died away the applause that rang out was instinctive and told its tale with simplicity. The music making had moved people to the rarified region of heartfelt unity of feeling – Gergiev and Co were Bobby Ewing.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Hold on to your Nuts - Wotan's heading your way with Verdi!

Photo nabbed from WMC

It's not often that the WMC plays host to visiting opera companies, so it's a bit like Cardiff bus station over the next two weeks with visits from the Mariinsky and Cape Town operas. Actually, I'd like to ditch the Cardiff bus station analogy as it's a mess of a place that seems to have been in a state of "improvement" for many, many months now and is in danger of being in a "permanent" state of "improvement"...someone fix the place as it's becoming an eyesore!

Okay, non-opera related rant over with – on to the enjoyable stuff.

Now that WNO is off on its bus it's a rare opportunity to hear other companies in the Donald Gordon Theatre (in case you're wondering that's the honest and proper name of the main stage at the Armadillo). This weekend the Mariinsky visit with home grown (big) boy Bryn Terfel singing the role of Wotan in a concert performance of Act III of Die Walküre on Friday evening. His Brünnhilde is Larisa Gogolevskaya, who was the third, and by far the best, Brünnhilde during the recent disas...disappointing Ring Cycle at Covent Garden. The rest of the evening will be filled in with bits and pieces starring soloists from the Mariinsky led by their workaholic boss man Valery Gergiev.

Saturday evening is a Tchaikovsky extravaganza with the original pairing of The Nutcracker and the "rarely" performed one act opera Iolanta. Why the 66's and 99's around rarely? It's a piece that is very familiar to the Mariinsky and is foreign only to audiences outside of Russia. Taking up the role of Iolanta is Viktoria Yastrebova, a singer who has graduated through the Mariinsky's Young Singers Academy to become a full member of the opera company. Despite the obviously flashing star exclamation marks of the Friday and Sunday offerings the Saturday could be the gem of the weekend with Gergiev at home in Russian repertoire. It's a shame that Iolanta is only to be a concert performance as it would have been enjoyable to have seen the new staged production that was toured to Baden Baden recently – but it's currently playing in St Petersburg and I'm guessing air freighting the set doesn't make much sense.

Closing the weekend out sees Bryn Terfel return and join forces with Mariinsky soloists Yastrebova, Ekaterina Gubanova (guest soloist) and Sergei Semishkur in a performance of Verdi's Requiem. Hopefully it will prove to be a fitting end to a great weekend of music making. Tickets are still available for the first two evenings with the Sunday being a returns only event - so why don't you pop on down to the Wales Millennium Centre this weekend?

For homework you can visit this very handy page set up by the folks at the Armadillo that includes, among other goodies, an English libretto of Iolanta – get it while you can as I've been hunting high and low for one for some time.

And lovers of Cape Town opera, don't fret – I'll be previewing the company next week.

Monday, 5 October 2009

WNO in the News and Wozzeck Reviews

Xavier Renauld's photographs of Oscar Lhermitte's X Days Project

Thanks to my inept scheduling I had to forgo both performances of Wozzeck at the WMC, but thankfully two scribes wound their way to Cardiff Bay. As I'm planning to take in a performance on the road myself I've decided against reading the reviews in case they colour my expectations - but for those of you who like to read what you've seen, are going to see or may see you can check out the post-match analyses of Geoff Brown at The Times Online or Rian Evans at The Guardian.

Lothar Koenigs has been chatting to the press again, this time it was Karen Price of the Western Mail in a surprisingly long(ish) interview by Welsh media standards given that the man isn't a rugby player, or married to a rugby player.

Once the usual biographical details had been done with Lothar (I'm going with first name formality from here on in) waxed lyrical over engaging a younger audience, the acoustics at the WMC and the upcoming Meistersinger with Bryn Terfel. He then let a not entirely expected cat out of the bag when he slipped in the names Wagner and Strauss as composers he's familiar with and the telling phrase, I think I can serve the company best with the repertoire I know from home. To be fair, after the Italian years of Carlo Rizzi it would be beneficial for WNO to refresh their musical skills and I'd be interested to see which works make it on to the stage. I'm doubting (with confidence) that a Ring cycle is not on the cards, but I wouldn't mind seeing a Lohengrin or a Tristan making an appearance - with a sensible cast of course. You can read the interview in full at Wales Online.

John Fisher, WNO's other honcho has also been engaging the press in an interview with Opera Now magazine. Having been Scrooge like I read the interview in a shop (yes, I like to clog up aisles) and can't bring to mind any particular lines but it's worth a gander. You'll probably want to know which issue it is, and I can answer the question with the reply September / October and the words Dessay and pink...and yes, I will be buying a copy because I can't speed read a whole magazine.

Monday, 28 September 2009

To the the right...

I'll happily admit that I'm quite proud of the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC), or The Armadillo by the Bay ©* to use an affectionate local moniker. In an age when most new buildings resemble giant out-of-the-flat pack designs it's quite pleasing to see the bronze / slate combo claiming a space on the vastly changed Cardiff Bay skyline. I'll hold off painting romantic images of it as there are plenty of photographs to let you see it for yourselves, but I will say that if you do pop along for a performance remember to turn around after you've walked away for a minute or so to catch sight of its living room lights shining out.

But the inside is what I want to tell you about.

More precisely little hints that will help you enjoy your evening / afternoon visit to The Armadillo by the Bay ©**.

Tickets / coat room. You'll find both of these at the main four-mile long reception area at the front of the building; if you've come in through the Welsh Assembly side of the building you'll need to walk straight ahead. Next up – how fit are you? I'm asking you this because there are many steps to be stepped on in order for you to get to your seats. If you're in the stalls you needn't fret too much as you've only got the one flight of steps to climb – but if you've got a lean, mean fighting machine of a bank account you may want to take either of the lifts that are situated beside the two staircases at either end of the main entrance. Don't worry if you think you're having to leave the comfort of the bar behind as you'll find bars on each of the levels – but for an interval time drink I'd pre-order as you won't have time to do anything else other than hand over your money before you head back inside.

Anyway, now that you're upstairs a few more pointers. If you're sitting in the circle, or upper circle, be aware that the floor rises gently and you may feel a slight case of landlubbers legs if you're not used to it.

If you can, try and find your way to the correct door, to save yourself being marked out for some Kung-Fu action by disgruntled audience members as you walk the length of the auditorium to reach your seat.

Unfortunately, on rare occasions in the upper circle, you may find yourself faced with people obviously used to grander surroundings, who find the concept of moving an inch beyond them as you head out to pick up your pre-ordered drink during the interval – don't, as many people do, test the pain barrier in your hernia and walk up the stairs (which can be steep if your school photographs were in black and white), but walk calmly towards the IO's (ignorant ones) and ask them to "excuse me" in your most polite voice. Generally most people are very polite – but there are one or two exceptions to every rule.

Now that you've drunk your drink you'll require the tŷ bach and off you set in search of it. This will probably save you a lot of time, so listen up people. On most levels the men's toilets are on the right hand side of the auditorium, and the women's are on the left hand side, both facing staircases. I'm not so sure about the stalls conveniences, but ask a member of staff and they'll point you in the right direction. On the ground floor the WC's are hidden behind the right hand staircase. Not exactly the most riveting bit of information, but judging by the amount of times I've been asked where the toilets are I thought I'd let you all know...

The performance has now finished (don't be surprised for there not to be huge amounts of clapping during the performance as a lot of the audience are newish to opera and unsure when an aria finishes...and if a baddie comes on stage at the curtain call he / she will be booed – you'll know if they haven't done a good job if they are merely applauded) – anyway, as I said before I interjected myself – the performance has ended and you're heading downstairs. You will, inevitably, be faced with queues on the stairs; I'm sure they tested the evacuation capabilities of the WMC using Olympic athletes. So there you are, stuck. Grumbling about how such and such a place is much better to get out of (I'd have to agree with you) – but if you're on the right hand side of the building all hope is not lost. Once you reach the mirrored floor (you'll know the one I mean) – head towards the far end of the building and you'll find a staircase that leads out into the bar at the Welsh Assembly side of the building.

End of public service announcement.

So no WNO news, but I hope some pointers that will come in handy for first time visitors to The Armadillo by the Bay ©***.

* I'll take £1.5 million.
** £1.45 million.
*** I'm not dropping below £1.45.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Butterfly reviews...the story so far...

Xavier Renauld's photographs of Oscar Lhermitte's X Days Project

Ever the professional, apart from openly admitting a dislike of a work, I thought I'd collect the various moneyed words together for you to see the difference between myself, and the world-weary cynics of Fleet Street. Ummm, apparently I'm the cynic because the majority of the scribblers who made it to The Armadillo by the Bay © * quite enjoyed WNO's Madam Butterfly.

Rian Evans of The Guardian saw Amanda Roocroft as graceful and impassioned and from a seat better than mine she pointed out Claire Bradshaw's DIY skills in fixing a looking glass. Writing for The Times, Hilary Finch sees Roocroft as being convincingly child-like in the role, and wise beyond Butterfly’s 15 years with Bradshaw delivering a formidable Suzuki. Russell Thomas is a resonant and ringing-voiced Yankee — the real thing, while Neal Davies delivers a a nicely detailed and beautifully sung Sharpless. Gavin Allen in the South Wales Echo, but taken from Wales Online, saw a stunning performance by American tenor Russell Thomas as bad boy Pinkerton opposite Roocroft's convincingly vulnerable Butterfly. All of the reviewers, so far, have lavished praise on Carlo Rizzi's conducting and have fallen suitably in love with the sets.

Why not make your own mind up? There are three more performances at the WMC before the show hits the road.

* I'm willing to sell this for £4.8 million.

Monday, 21 September 2009

From a King to beans - WNO in the news

Photo Regina F. Silva

It says a lot about Lothar Koenigs' attitude towards self promotion that whereas many people taking over a new company would have chosen more crowd pleasing fare to introduce themselves to the public he has gone against any spin doctor's advice (if the WNO have such a figure) and decided on Berg's Wozzeck as the opening to his tenure as WNO music director. In a recent interview with the Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen we get to hear from the man himself. I especially like Koenigs' closing lines, which point towards a fruitful future for music making at the WNO, “I don’t want to educate people, not at all. My only ambition is to show them the beauty of the music.”

A week from now Christopher Purves will have gone mad, but don't blame the beans. Set to reprise the role that in 2005 (kind of) made his name he spoke recently to (I assume) Emma Pomfret of The Times following a rehearsal of Wozzeck. If you'd like to hear more about his past (Um Bongo), his present (baked beans) and his future (Schubert’s Schwanengesang) then pop on over to The Times Online.

And a big thank you to Regina F. Silva of for permission in using the photograph of Barako Coffee's King Beans Coffee!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

La Traviata – WMC 18th of September 2009

Photo from The Times Online*

For the second day in a row I found myself getting off the little chug-a-lugger of a train that runs between the Bay and Cardiff Queen Street and setting off towards the Armadillo, but this time in a better state of mind than I had done the previous day – partly due to the fact that I was going to see my (probably) favourite opera and partly due to my wearing clothes that didn't smell of dog. Huzzah for working washing machines!

It had been over a week since I'd seen the dress rehearsal and I was keen to see what had changed in the meantime. Would Alfredo grow a moustache? Would Giorgio enter stage left on a unicycle? Would Violetta knit a scarf whilst singing Sempre libera? Fortunately for the audience none of the above took place (maybe Salzburg would like to contact me about directing a new production?).

Andrea Licata is a curious conductor – unlike the vast majority of his colleagues he shuns applause at the beginning of a performance, preferring to ninja style his way to the podium and begin affairs as soon as the lights dim – which I don't mind except that this being Wales several people were caught mid-gossip and continued to WHISPER very QUIETLY during the opening prelude.

Once everyone got the last of their whispers out of their systems the action returned to the stage. Alfie Boe (Alfredo) had been a minor cause for concern for me during the dress rehearsal, but he slapped my wrist for doubting his ability to pull a vocal shift. There was a passion to his singing throughout the night that had been lacking a week earlier and he became the third cog in the dramatic wheelhouse. Thankfully the de-kitted Alfredo was allowed to keep his trousers on during the opening of the second act that did away with the oohhs that erupted during the dress rehearsal – and I suspect Mr Boe was very glad as it must be seriously off putting for people to be ignoring your singing and concentrating on your backside.

Dario Solari again impressed as Giorgio Germont, although I could do with a bit more attack in his voice during the more dramatic passages. A curse of having such an apparently easy on the ear voice? Perhaps. Again his Act II scene with Myrto Papatanasiu was the highlight of the evening, even if he did sound a touch tired towards the end of the act as he shared the stage with Boe. A nice little detail in the confrontation has Alfredo reacting violently to his father, a change from the usual take on things that paints Snr in a less domineering light than is usual and perhaps explains the absence of dogmatism in his singing. A Giorgio not so in control of affairs is certainly an interesting prospect...

Of course, to have a successful Traviata, you need a Violetta who can sing her green shoes off – and a second meeting with Myrto Papatanasiu was confirmation that she is a singer very probably heading places over the coming years. Although she isn't quite the finished article at this moment in time her voice needs only smoothing in small places, and perhaps a guiding hand here or there to suggest how she can best get the most of what is an impressive instrument. È strano! in Act I was superbly sung and deserved the applause that came her way. She followed this with a fearless Sempre libera, complete with high notes that escape many sopranos. Again she was a Violetta to be reckoned with, which made her decline in the final act all the more moving. Addio del passato was a poignant high (low) point that had the audience so enthralled that not a single one managed to raise an applause – but don't worry, she got plenty at the final curtain.

One or two rambles before you can go your way – could the management at the WMC hand out cough sweets at the beginning of the third act as Violetta's coughing was drowned out by the audience getting too much into the performance. As for Addio del passato – I'm not sure if we're getting the 7" version as opposed to the 33⅓ rpm LP version, or maybe I'm enjoying it to the extent that I'm wanting an encore. Okay – where was the chorus at applause time? It seemed a tad odd not having them to enjoy the fruit of their labours...

And that's all folks – I'll probably try and see another performance but will save you having to read all about it. What you can read though, if you're a member of the cheaper seats, away from John Lennon's jewellery rattlers in the stalls, is the inscription that runs across the black marble styled floor of the stage – Ici Ripose... (the ...'s are mine). Essentially the stage is a gravestone / tomb cracked at one corner playing out the last days of Violetta Valery, and if I were you I'd catch the last days of this production as I'm not sure if WNO will have another Violetta of such quality again. for the * bit - not wanting to run into trouble over copyright if the snapper who took the photo would like a credit please get in touch as I couldn't find a name on The Times Online...

Madam Butterfly - WMC 17th of September

Photo Neil Bennett from the WNO website

"Déjà vu dude," I thought as I bought my programme – weren't most of the cast present in the last production? Yes. Did I need to buy a new programme? Probably not, but at least I got to fan away the garlic devotee beside me who had obviously bathed in the stuff before coming on over to the Armadillo by the Bay©. To be fair he got a whiff of dog walking clothes (washing machine playing up) so I think we were about even.

Anyone who has read my meanderings below will know I'm not a big fan of Madam Butterfly, but out of a sense of duty I thought I'd better take in the tearjerker of all tearjerkers. (Plus the fact that I'm seriously double booked with both Wozzeck performances and won't be within one hundred and eighty miles means I won't have anything WNO flavoured to cover until February).

This was the first staged production of any opera I had seen several years ago and although it hadn't blown my socks off it did enough to get me hooked. This was partly due to Amanda Roocroft's superb performance and it was mainly her reprising her double-barrelled first name role that swayed my apathy this time round. Unfortunately I caught her on, what to me was, an off night. Maybe off night is too harsh. Uneven would be a better description. While she struck some lovely lines she struggled to maintain smoothness in her tone as she strived for her high notes. I'll doff my cap to her final scene though – riveting to the extreme.

One abiding memory I have of the first time I saw this production was the trouble the tenor had in being heard above the orchestra, and though this wasn't as noticeable a problem this time round Russell Thomas still had a fight on his hands when Carlo Rizzi pressed the volume button on his baton. Maybe a touch less oomph may have allowed a bit more finesse in the singing department? But returning to Mr Thomas – a gorgeous voice that begged to be listened to. I'm not so sure about the acting stakes – but to be fair Pinkerton isn't a role that's allowed to develop in sight of the audience, so it's safer to say – let's wait and see with regards to Thomas' acting. But for now the voice is more than enough.

Claire Bradshaw once again was a fine Suzuki who had spark aplenty. Neal Davies as Sharpless rediscovered his humane stride with ease as did another returnee, Philip Lloyd Holtam, as the wheeling dealing Goro. Yet despite all their efforts, and the wonderfully authentic sets, I left feeling the same way as I entered; untouched by a Butterfly.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Brava Marianna!

On my recent travels I saw a concert performance of Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix at Covent Garden - it's not blessed with the most coherent of plots and sometimes an aria or two can linger for longer than I'd like but it makes for a fun night out if the cast is up to scratch, which it was on Monday evening.

Among a cast that included Alessandro Corbelli (Mr Comedy Character Actor 2009), Ludovic Tézier and the upcoming Stephen Costello was Marianna Pizzolato - who played Sifare in the recent Mitridate, and the title role of WNO's 2007 production of La Cenerentola. I have to admit to feeling a sense of pride in seeing her on the stage at the ROH as she gave a warmly received performance that should ensure she gets a recall at some point in the future.

Of course this will mean that she'll be less likely to appear with WNO in the future, which is a shame for the audience this side of the Severn, but I prefer to think of it in a different way. Just as Ajax is a feeder to the big boys in football I like to think of WNO playing a similar role in the opera world. WNO are never going to be able to afford top of the heap singers (unless they're home grown) but it's pleasing to see singers who have appeared with WNO move on to becoming "names" as it shows the management can spot a good singer or two! And who knows, they might, like Simon Keenlyside, return to their old stomping grounds when they've made their reputation.

Brava Marianna!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Links, links, links and not a harem in sight....

Xavier Renauld's photographs of Oscar Lhermitte's X Days Project.

Standing in for any real writing I've decided to offer blue highlighted words that should take you to some interesting bits and pieces on WNO I've come across on my travels.

To begin is a pair of positive reviews on La Traviata that you can slip on your feet and take for a walk. First up is Rupert Christiansen's take on things, including generous praise for Myrto Papatanasiu's Violetta - "ardent and free-spirited...a lovely performance from a singer we should hear more of." Geoff Brown, of The Times was equally taken with the new visitor to these shores and rustled up the perceptive "strip of steel in her voice reinforces the character’s backbone" and four stars to boot.

Moving on from my lazy attempt at What the Papers Say I thought I'd point you towards another paper story, this time from Wales Online. Not my usual read I have to admit, but one I'm getting to know as I knuckle down to taking this blog seriously. Anyway, before I lose you the story shows to what lengths teachers will go to get a free ticket to the opera...only joking - most of my known acquaintances have to suffer the slings and arrows of the planet's future population so I'm all for them escaping the confines of a seriously soul sapping vocation. But this isn't a lifestyle piece and in short it's the story of how a Cardiff school has incorporated Madam Butterfly into their curriculum with the help of WNO Max - the WNO's educational arm. Given the lip service paid towards the arts in education over the past twenty / thirty years or so it's important to see such initiatives take place, even if they only reach a small number of students.

My final offerings come straight from the horse's mouth. People within reach of Liverpool will have an In Conversation with John Fisher talking about the autumn season (check with WNO for ticket availability) while Wozzeck is treated to an innovative post performance discussion at Cardiff, Llandudno, Oxford and Birmingham (no need to book tickets in advance but follow the link to check out the dates involved). Unfortunately, due to some decrepit booking skills I'm seriously doublebooked for both Cardiff Wozzeck's and will be missing out on what could well be a welcome new fangled addition to the WNO's meet and greet strategy.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

La Traviata Dress Rehearsal

Going against every grain of fair play in my body I thought I'd give a sneak peak of what to expect in the coming La Traviata at WNO. Of course, this was only a dress rehearsal and singers / orchestra (even the audience) rarely give of their best on these occasions, preferring to keep their powder dry until opening night – but as I'm otherwise detained for the opening performances I thought I'd foist my opinions on you to save me plagiarising proper reviewers work.

Where to begin? Singers? Obviously they count. The orchestra and conductor? To be fair you need both of these. How about director and designer...? Now, usually I tend to think of opera purely as a vocal entertainment and quite often neglect to pay attention to the visual side of things – but as has been pointed out to me by persons with a lot more experience in these matters – this is the McVicar / McCallin Traviata, so doffing my cap to experience I thought I'd start with the view and movement for a change...

The important thing to realise with this production is that essentially, unless I've got the wrong end of the stick and am holding a banana instead, it's told in flashback from, I assume, Alfredo's pov. It's this subjective take on the story that dictates the predominantly sombre colour scheme – if you're a lover of black then you're in for a treat. In fact, the whole of the stage is caught within a "final curtain" look with large drapes framing the view. Does it work? In a sense, if you "get", the premise then it does (assuming I'm not still holding the banana). However, if you don't, then the decadence, the whole fin de siecle portrayal may become a touch heavy to the eyes. But hey! This is opera, where happiness isn't in abundance! One or two stage directions (for props) are probably unneeded but I'll let you decide for yourselves. In all, it is a richly drawn setting with plenty of atmosphere for you to sink your melancholy into.

Escaping shaky ground to less shaky ground (no terra firma in sight though) I'll waffle on about the singers for a while...I beg their pardons already.

This has been my third production of Traviata since May – taking in Vienna and London's main houses. Why am I telling you this? Well, to explain that I was carrying some mighty big baggage into this production that I hoped wouldn't have me thinking, "Well, they're okay, but they're not as good as...". So please remember this is a dress rehearsal I'm talking about...

Violetta came in the elegant form of Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu making her UK debut. She'd recently stepped into some rather large shoes when subbing for Angela Gheorghiu at Munich in the same role so she had plenty of credentials to pop on to her WNO bio. Would it be a worthy use of ink? I'd say so. Pardon the pun but she's no shrinking Violetta with a large voice that carried through the orchestra with ease. The danger of having such a big voice is that a singer can sometimes become too reliant on it, but Papatanasiu managed to avoid this trap. Once or twice she carried a note too long for my liking, but this is only a minor quibble. A touch more colour in her top notes, or even a softness to allow a variation for the ear to enjoy would be welcome – and judging from recordings I'd heard of her previous to this dress rehearsal it's something she appears to be actively working on. In short, if you've bought a ticket, she will not short-change you at all and she may well develop into a singer worth keeping an eye on (and she dies a lot better than some Violetta's too).

Playing the clueless Alfredo (does money grow on trees my boy?) is Alfie Boe. To begin with he seemed to be singing with his head in a pillow such was the difference in volume between himself and Papatanasiu, and as the rehearsal continued he seemed to be very underpowered. Saving himself? Perhaps. As it was things weren't looking grand for him and as we neared the final act the biggest response he had elicited from the audience was when he slid naked from bed and quickly into his trousers at the beginning of the second act (and judging by the amarous oohs and aahhs coming from the females all around me I suggest he leaves by helicopter come opening night). I'm not sure if he forgot about saving himself in the final act, or if he had been affected by dress rehearsal apathy, but suddenly, from being an Alfredo who had short top notes and little volume, he grew into his role in a way that suggests there is a lot more to come when the production opens for real.

Giorgio Germont was sung by Uruguayan baritone Dario Solari. To steal a phrase from a language tape I'm currently grappling with – "It pleases me" to report that Mr Solari is in good shape. A warm voice with a solid foundation he just about edged Papatanasiu in the dress rehearsal, and it was really their scene in act two that was the thoroughbred highlight of the afternoon. Of all the singers on stage he is the one who knows his voice best and it shows. Perhaps I'd like a touch more oomph in his high notes – but I'm just being greedy. Catch him while you can, because if he continues to sing like this then WNO audiences won't be seeing much more of him I'm afraid.

Honourable mentions too to Louise Poole and David Soar who made telling contributions with the little they had to do. The same too can be said of the dancers, especially the toreador and his bull, all shaped in a refreshingly buttock slapping original manner by choreographer Andrew George.

The orchestra, bedecked in shorts / jeans / leotards and conducted by a non-leotard wearing Andrea Licata, played quite well given that the tempi were a mixture of slow and quick; generally quicker than I've been used to, which made for some interesting passages. But honestly – unless they make an almighty mistake I'm not going to notice so it's best I leave them alone to do what they do so well...

Finishing off the show I can't forget the chorus who, predictably, as usual, the same old effect, were marvellous. If I could I'd like to take them with me to other houses to show them off because they are top drawer in my book. No, I don't know anyone in the chorus in case you're wondering.

From beginning to end this WNO, Scottish Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu co-production is elegant fare that ticks all the boxes. Papatanasiu plays a strong willed Violetta to Boe's slightly less authoritative Alfredo with their fates sealed by the impressive Solari as Germont Snr. If you've got a ticket you're in for a treat – if you haven't, take a punt on it because it's worth the admission fee.

Monday, 7 September 2009

For Hire - Escamillo Costume (BYO bull and senorita)

Sketch by Rubens (if he had hired me in his studio)

Just like an Old Master painter I prefer to live off the hard work of others – so without dwelling on the fact that this snippet of news was brought to my attention by a post on Intermezzo's blog I'll carry on as if I'd just discovered this WNO news article from Wales Online myself.

It seems that if you're in the mood to show up at work dressed as Don Giovanni or, if it's a drizzly January Monday morning, as Il Commendatore, you can pop along to WNO's costume department (situated a handy leap from a train window as you leave Cardiff Central) and hire yourself a new persona for the day.

I'm not sure if there'll be much of a call for Dennis O’Neill's threads from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera among the basketball playing fraternity of Wrexham, but luckily, as height isn't a common gift among Welshmen born before 1978, I wouldn't be surprised to see an explosion of vocal duelling between Rodolfos and Alfredos in back street saloons throughout the length and breadth of Europe's answer to the Amazon rainforest (minus the heat of course).

Luckily I am no longer the drunken youth of my drunken youth who would have hired out a number and tramped around the pubs and clubs of Cardiff terrorising damsels into distress with my Mick Jagger impersonation – but now the thought has entered my head I wonder if there's a dress code at the WMC?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Hold on to your hankies - the Italians are coming! (oh, and hold on to your sanity, so is an Austrian)

With little over a week until WNO's 09/10 season begins I thought I'd better give a quick run down of what's on offer this autumn. Being a touring company WNO haven't got the financial clout to stage reams of works unlike the Shirley Crabtree's of this world, so its number of productions per season is small (usually three) to allow stakes to be upped as it moves from city to city in a general three month cycle.

Luckily for me it does hang around for a month at its home base so I can pop along to as many performances as I fancy, given that prices are extremely reasonable – especially compared with the visit of the Mariinsky in October, when it's sell your granny time if you want to see the whole weekend.

If you're not flash with cash you can see the three offerings of La Traviata, Madama Butterfly and Wozzeck for a combined £15, and as not everything sells out you can sneak down the sides into pricier seats in the upper circle and see the action even closer up. Whatever your price range tickets are still available from the WMC.

Photo by Drew Farrell from the WNO website

My own highlight of the autumn season is La Traviata. It's an opera that I can listen to time and again and having the David McVicar direction to enjoy is a double delight. On the casting front I'm intrigued to hear how Alfie Boe fares. It's good to see that unlike some "opera singers" who have made a pretty penny from solo discs he is actually taking up the challenge of doing the real thing on stage. His Violetta is the Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu, who recently deputised in the same role for Angela Gheorghiu at Munich opposite the Man's Man Tenor (TM) Jonas Kaufmann – it goes without saying that I'm looking forward to hearing her sing. Completing the triumvirate of main roles (Papa G) is Dario Solari, the Uruguayan baritone, who was the recent Prince Yeletsky during the company's superb Queen of Spades. Waving the stick for the band to follow is Andrea Licata.

Photo by Neil Bennett from the WNO website

The second big seller of the autumn season is the Joachim Herz directed Madam Butterfly with Amanda Roocroft reprising the role of Cio-Cio San she played to thunderous applause several seasons ago, and playing the mean so and so Pinkerton is Miami born Russell Thomas (who must be wishing he was back in Miami given the weather Cardiff is offering him). Playing the character with the motorbike name is Claire Bradshaw, who is also reprising her well-received role from the 2007 production. Now, I have to admit that this isn't my favourite opera, and I am debating whether to actually go and see it, but given that it's an opera that is being performed on my doorstep, and not two hundred miles away, I think I'll make the effort. Stick waver for (most) of the WMC run is former WNO Big Cheese / Head Honcho / The Main Man, Carlo Rizzi.

Photo by Bill Cooper from the WNO website

On a changing of the guard note the conductor for the final autumn offering is WNO's new musical guru, Lothar Koenigs. He'll be leading the cast, headed by Christopher Purves, through the Richard Jones directed Wozzeck, an opera I know absolutely nothing about. The bits I've heard on You Tube have prepared me for an experience I'm guessing will be musically on a different planet from the operas written by the Italian dudes. I've been ummming and ahhing for the best part of the summer (okay, autumn masquerading as summer) whether or not to buy a copy to get used to what I'll be seeing but so far I'm still undecided. It's not that I'm adverse to a bit of madness in music, but I'm not sure if I'll be settling down to an evening of Wozzeck with a recording after I've seen it. I'll probably do a Butterfly and crack. By the way, you may find the following link of use if you're partial to seeing a man singing whilst walking on baked bean tins.

So that's what is on offer from the WNO at the WMC this autumn. It goes without saying that I'll be providing more uneducated responses to professional musicians efforts and hope that wherever you are in the world, and whatever company is your own hometown favourite, I hope you'll be having an un-Marx Bros style night at the opera very soon!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Second Post!

Mitridate, re di Ponto

When I was fourteen I was discovering the joys of The Cure and silk boxer shorts (they were the height of soffisteekashun for me then). When Mozart was fourteen he was writing his fifth opera. But who had the better underwear?

Before this concert performance was scheduled I have to admit that I had never heard of Mitridate, re di Ponto. So, being the increasingly worryingly opera anorak I am becoming I decided to buy a copy. Instead of buying from my local shop, Amazon, I decided to buy it at an even cheaper price, and it arrived after the performance took place. Does this really matter? Not really, but at least I can get that particular moan off my chest.

What of the performance? I hear you, well, okay, I hear myself asking.

Having suffered last year's Rossini concert of sleep inducing music (sorry Carlo) I wasn't too excited about another performance of a rarely performed piece of work. The reason why pieces are rarely performed are that they are, well, usually crap.

But I was looking forward to hearing Aleksandra Kurzak singing live for the first time, and also Charles Mackerras was the stick waver for the evening so my reservations were left on my doorstep. I'm glad that I did.

Okay, so the opera isn't one of Mozart's best, but once my ears had grown accustomed to the sheer number of arias that were being sent their way I found myself not directing my attention towards the surtitles (usually a big yes-yes for me with unfamiliar works) but instead I simply enjoyed the music making on the stage.

It's now the point of my invention / desecration of musical terms. Look away now if you're easily embarrassed by a person's ignorance.

Of the singers on the stage Kurzak (Aspasia) was my favourite. She had a bell clear voice that seemed to sit above the orchestra and responded effortlessly to the demands of the music. Her coloratura was a joy to listen to - light and surefooted. On a final note - great dress!

Karl Lagerfeld will now move on to the rest of the cast.

Emma Bell was suitably strong in voice in portraying Sifare and her duet with Kurzak was probably the highlight of the evening. I hope that she will return sooner rather than later to WNO. Someone who has returned sooner is the mezzo Marianna Pizzolato (she was a wonderful Cenerentola in the previous season). She may not possess the purest top of other mezzos, but she certainly gave her all and drew the audience into her web as Farnace. Bruce Ford, no stranger to the role of Mitridate having recorded the role with ROH, gave an assured, if sometimes strained performance. Completing the main roles Laura Mitchell (Ismene) provided some serious competition to Kurzak as being my favourite singer of the evening. She gave a wonderfully controlled performance that exuded class in abundance. Of the lesser roles Joanne Boag (Arbate) once again displayed a voice in need of bigger roles - she has a recitative voice to die for, as does Robin Tritschler (Marzio). It will be interesting to see where his career will take him.

So the conducting. I'm an absolute novice at this, and Charles Mackerras obviously isn't. I'll stick to - great job! And the same goes for the orchestra also!

And there it is - my first review. I hope that in time I'll be able took back and think - "That was awful." The review - not the performance.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Welcome to the operatic hair salon

Hello to anyone who has fallen on this blog.

And apologies for those people looking for a hairdresser.

I will, before long, begin work on this blog, but first of all a quick run down of who I am, and what it is that this non-hair blog is all about...

I was born on - okay, I won't begin at the beginning.

I'm a man with hair who likes opera and classical music (among other forms of music). My main stomping ground is Welsh National Opera, although I do travel to Covent Garden and mainland Europe to catch certain singers strutting their hairdos.

I'll admit straight away that I have no musical training whatsoever, and will probably insult the intelligence of many people during the writing of this blog - but please keep in mind that I'm not a blogger who prefers to tear down productions for the sake of it, but rather I'm a bloke who hopes to share / impose (take your pick) my thoughts on performances I'll be seeing.

So be prepared for the crap use of musical terms, the invention of many new musical terms and the generally rambling, amateurish nature of my reviews.

First up - Mitridate, re di Ponto!

...please note, I may be a day or two in blogging my thoughts on the performance.

...okay, make this a week as the Cardiff Singer of the World competition is about to start and, well, I've got work to do as well...