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.