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Latest News

Oboist loses Welsh National Opera unfair dismissal claim

18 October 2010, Cardiff, Wales

Conductor, Carlo Rizzi
Conductor, Carlo Rizzi(Photo: Welsh National Opera)

An oboist who played with Welsh National Opera (WNO) for 34 years has lost his claim of unfair dismissal against the company at an employment tribunal in Cardiff.

Murray ‘Sandy’ Johnston, aged 61, claimed that he was "persistently abused" for several years by WNO’s music director, Carlo Rizzi, before being sacked by the company in 2008.

Johnston’s lawyer, Nick Smith, claimed that other members of the orchestra had also written letters complaining about Rizzi's behaviour. "The language of these letters was very, very strong,” said Smith. “They accuse Mr Rizzi of intimidation and harassment, of even making one woman ill."

But Jason French-Williams, defending WNO, told tribunal judges that Johnston was dismissed because of legitimate concerns about the standard of his playing, which threatened to damage the “world-level” reputation of the company.

Prior to his dismissal, Johnston was monitored for nearly four years and underwent a capability test procedure that included successfully reauditioning for his own job.

Commenting last week in The Guardian, UK Musicians' Union representative Bill Kerr said: "It is quite unusual for someone to go through the capability test procedure and even more unusual for them to pass it. If you are not up to the job then you are spotted pretty quickly. I don't think a principal oboe player playing poorly could hide for three or four minutes.”

Since his dismissal, Johnston has gone on to play with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and other well-regarded ensembles.

Carlo Rizzi, who held the post of music director at Welsh National Opera from 1992 to 2001 and again from 2004 to 2007, did not give evidence at Johnston’s tribunal.


Join the Conversation: Live! at English National Opera

15 October 2010, London, UK

English National Opera’s new production of La bohème will be introduced at a free public talk on Monday as part of the company’s pre-performance event series, Join the Conversation: Live!

Featuring a panel of expert commentators, the discussion will be led by BBC journalist, broadcaster and host, Christopher Cook, plus there’ll be a live performance by ENO soprano, Laura Mitchell, and opportunities for guests to join the debate.

Opera Now correspondent, Adrian Mourby, will be one of Cook’s interviewees alongside arts correspondent, Rosie Millard, and ENO's translator for La bohème, Amanda Holden.

The talk will be available to download afterwards for anyone who couldn’t attend.

Join the Conversation: Live! at 5.30pm on Monday 18 October 2010 in the Apple Store, 1-7 The Piazza, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8HB.


Dame Joan Sutherland remembered

14 October 2010, London, UK

Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975
Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975(Photo: Allan Warren)

Special report by Paul Westcott

To explain why Joan Sutherland has been described as “The Voice of the Century” is not as easy as it sounds.  Undoubtedly she had a fabulous technique and an intrinsically beautiful voice, but there was so much more to her artistry than that. Her music-making was imbued with that ‘star’ quality which very few possess.  Possibly because, in her person and in her application to making the most of her gifts, she was utterly un-Diva like. 

In her most famous role, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland made the somewhat far-fetched character of Lucia totally believable. The celebrated ‘Mad Scene’ of that opera was chilling, thrilling, and ultimately intensely moving.

One was instinctively on ‘her’ side in all of Sutherland’s portrayals, from her fizzing Marie in La Fille du regiment (revealing her tremendous comic flair) to the less sympathetic characters of Turandot and Lucrezia Borgia, the latter of which features a final dazzling aria where again she managed both to move and thrill in equal measure.
Her 1970s recording of Maria Stuarda gives lie to the myth that Sutherland’s diction was poor. Here, she positively spits out her words, and when she flings the insult “vil bastarda”, the intensity of the drama is electrifying.

With her husband, Richard Bonynge, Sutherland was very generous to her colleagues, instinctively recognising other great talents: early in her career she performed with Marilyn Horne, the start of a long collaboration and friendship, whilst a certain young singer, Luciano Pavarotti, was taken under the wing of Joan and Richard, performing with them on tours and in opera houses. But there were many other wonderful artists too, whose delight in collaborating with Joan produced a string of classic Decca recordings of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and many works from the French repertoire, notably Massenet and a practically definitive version of Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Sutherland’s recital discs – ‘The Art of the Prima Donna’, ‘The Age of Bel Canto’ and ‘Romantic French Arias’ – are all superb examples of her artistry but one only has to listen to the finale of her Decca recordings of I Puritani to understand why she really was “The Voice of the Century”. 

Sutherland was a great artist and a great person and is irreplaceable.

Paul Westcott is the official biographer of Australian conductor and pianist, Richard Bonynge, who married Dame Joan Sutherland in 1954 and played a crucial role in supporting her rise to superstardom.


Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Opera North

13 October 2010, Leeds, UK

Elizabeth Atherton as the Governess (left) and James Micklethwaite as Miles (right)
Elizabeth Atherton as the Governess (left) and James Micklethwaite as Miles (right)(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Michael White

The task for a stage director of The Turn of the Screw is not to say too much, beyond establishing an unspecific sense of evil.

Should the director decide that in fact nothing has happened, and it's all the hyperactive fantasy of a neurotic Governess, we don't want to know that either - otherwise the tensions in the piece evaporate.
A problem with the new Turn of the Screw at Opera North was that, having relegated everything to the Governess's mind, the director Alessandro Talevi couldn't resist the temptation to spell it out for us.
Act I had some seriously misjudged ideas, but Act II was clearer, with some truly scary moments; and the last ten minutes were electrifying. An outstanding cast was led by Elizabeth Atherton as a forceful and securely sung Governess. Benjamin Hulett made an eloquent impression as Quince. Fflur Wyn, a petite adult, passed convincingly as the child Flora. And there was a wonderfully fleshed out, full-blooded Miles from James Micklethwaite, a local schoolboy with just the kind of ripely unself-conscious sound and manner Britten wanted.

The Turn of the Screw runs at Leeds’ Grand Theatre until 21 October, followed by performances in Salford Quays (The Lowry), Newcastle (Theatre Royal) and Nottingham (Theatre Royal).


World Premiere – ETO presents Alexander Goehr’s Promised End

12 October 2010, London, UK

Roderick Earle (Lear)
Roderick Earle (Lear)(Photo: English Touring Opera)

Opera Now correspondent, Robert Thicknesse, reports:

Promised End, the title of English Touring Opera’s  first ever commission, comes from the last scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the inspiration for this new opera by the composer-scholar Alexander Goehr.
There is no objective reason why a Lear opera shouldn’t work. Goehr’s attempt at least limits itself to one aspect of the play, concentrating on the self-destruction of two foolish old men, Lear and Gloucester. The late scholar, Sir Frank Kermode, helped Goehr to select 24 scenes and edit the text. The result is a kind of fast-forward palimpsest of the play, familiar lines flashing by and a great deal of knowledge taken for granted. ETO’s boss James Conway, who directs this production, was at pains to distance opera from play – but without considerable knowledge of the latter this would be a puzzling show indeed.
As it is, it’s just boring. Goehr has gone ritualistic, which is not in itself a bad idea when you need to produce a miniature version. But his Noh-influenced product is so telegraphic, so depersonalised, there is nothing human in it to attach your brain or heart to; neither is there any noticeable attempt to justify setting the play to music in the first place.
Two characters on stage come closest to some sort of life, Lina Markeby’s doubled Cordelia and Fool, and Nicholas Garrett as that caricature of evil, Edmund; the first because her music is individualised, a sort of Weimar version of Olde-Englysshe lute songs; the second because he delivers his words with a spitting relish that makes him sound like the only person on stage performing in his native language. Roderick Earle is an unengaging Lear but it’s not his fault particularly – the character is simply written without much affection. And neither is Gloucester, sung by Nigel Robson.
The word-setting itself is pretty dire, a lesson in how to denature poetry. The text is, however, set against a strangely attractive score, spikily lyrical but diffuse and unimaginatively scored: blocks of wind or strings, a clarinet and violin in wandering counterpoint, occasionally something more interesting concocted by chamber organ and guitar. The greatest pleasure in the show is listening to this series of what Goehr calls ‘preludes’, though it is very much faute de mieux. A chorus – Greece through the eyes of Brecht – occasionally comments in pleasantly clustered chords.
Conway does what he can, with a simple, stylised, elegant and atmospheric staging that owes something to Noh and something to Samuel Beckett. What he can’t hide is the incredibly dated nature of this work – and this is the final impression: a composer who, unlike his contemporaries Davies and Birtwistle, never grew out of the Seventies, cloistered himself in Cambridge and finally produced what will never amount to more than a footnote to his career.


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