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Perfect pitch: new instruments for old sounds at the Glyndebourne Festival

18 June 2009, Glyndebourne, UK

Tony Robson tries out one of the new instruments
Tony Robson tries out one of the new instrumentsSimon Laundon

In its quest of an ‘authentic early English sound’ Glyndebourne’s forthcoming new production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (a festival first) will use a set of new instruments made specifically for the production. Glyndebourne’s associate orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, will perform on an entirely new collection of instruments, designed to sound at Purcell’s pitch standard A405, exactly three quarters of a tone flatter than modern concert pitch (A440), and slightly lower than the now conventional ‘Baroque pitch’ (A415).  

Tony Robson, oboe and recorder player for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been working extensively with Southampton University Purcell specialist Andrew Pinnock to source the various instruments. Speaking about the process, Pinnock said that ‘it was a project lots of us wanted to see happen, for a very long time. I’ve been talking to Tony Robson and Glyndebourne for well over a decade.’ Simply finding and waiting for the instruments for The Fairy Queen took two to three years.

Glyndebourne’s authentic approach has prompted something of a reappraisal of the possibilities of late17th-century English orchestral sound. On the evidence of the rehearsals for Fairy Queen, the psychological and physical effects of the music on both performers and audiences are quite different at the lower pitch of Purcell’s day. ‘Baroque music can be played very well on modern instruments,’ says Pinnock ‘but with copies of old ones, the balance and blend achievable seems to be much more convincing – especially important when accompanying voices.’ It is also thought that by singing at the authentic pitch, the true vocal parts of Purcell’s music ‘fall perfectly into range’.

Marking the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, Glyndebourne’s production of The Fairy Queen will open this Saturday (20 June) with 12 performances until 12 August. There will also be a concert performance as part of the BBC Proms on 21 July. The production is directed by Jonathan Kent and conducted by Baroque specialist, William Christie.  

For tickets to this rare and unbridged performance, visit 


Experience counts at this year's BBC Cardiff Singer of the World

16 June 2009, Cardiff, UK

Ekaterina Shcherbachenko; winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2009
Ekaterina Shcherbachenko; winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2009Brian Tarr

For the third time in 10 years a lyric soprano has won Cardiff Singer of the World. After Anja Harteros in 1999 and Nicole Cabell in 2005, in 2009 it was a willowy Russian with cheekbones to die for, a silky timbre and soft-focus diction: 32-year-old Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, who – maybe a little controversially – is already an established member of the Bolshoi. A sympathetic stage presence, she had made a home run in round two with Tatyana’s Letter Scene, even if she did push through her tone at the big moments, but for the final she chose to sing in French, Italian and English. Marguerite’s Jewel Song lacked diamantine sparkle and – vitally – a trill; maybe Dame Joan Sutherland, the competition’s evergreen patron, had a chance to take Shcherbachenko aside after the show and give her some tips. 

The Russian’s French enunciation was also on the mushy side, but her subsequent ‘Signore, ascolta’ was subtly drawn and featured a fine crescendo on the final note. An adventurous choice, Anne Trulove’s aria from Act 1 of Rake’s Progress again needed more musical and textual clarity – and a slightly sharper climactic top C – though she put plenty of effort into the characterisation. To deserve the ultimate accolade, Scherbachenko, above all as the year’s most mature contestant, should have dominated her chosen material with greater consistency.  

The other soprano in the final, Japan’s Eri Nakamura, gave no cause for similar doubts. Currently on the young artists’ programme of the Royal Opera (along with the meticulous tenor Jee-Min Park, this year’s South Korean contestant), Nakamura is a petite woman with a surprisingly big voice, projected with plenty of spin and occasionally reminiscent of Mirella Freni. Her persona is intense – perhaps even a mite overbearing. She impressed rather than charmed in Juliette’s ‘Je veux vivre’ (which popped up several times this year), then swopped over to Giulietta for ‘Oh! quante volte’, slightly overworking the line and expression. Liù’s ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’ was shaped with welcome dignity, even heroism, while Strauss’ song Cäcilie brought long-breathed phrasing and surging passion.  

The three male finalists could hardly have been more strongly contrasted: the tenor Giordano Lucà from Italy, the bass Jan Martiník from the Czech Republic and the countertenor Yuriy Mynenko from the Ukraine.   Lucà, who took the audience prize, awarded by viewers and listeners around the entire UK, is just 21 – and occasionally it showed – but his elegance and grace were exceptional as Nemorino, the Duke of Mantua, Macduff and Rodolfo. At the final there were moments of tiredness or tension in the voice, and he is more elegiac, sunny and affectionate than tragic, dashing and seductive, but he is a touchingly unaffected performer. Given time to develop his voice and stage presence, and maybe a little more squillo, he could become an important singer. 

Martiník (born 1983), who took first prize in the parallel song competition, sports a mellow, rounded timbre that destines him for the more benign German roles, and he has already sung Sarastro as a member of Berlin’s Komische Oper. Predictably, he was convincing in the lament from Rusalka, but the impact of his Don Basilio and King Philip, both subtly handled, was compromised by his soothingly cushioned timbre and consonants.  

There had been hopes that 30-year-old Mynenko would make history by becoming the first countertenor to win the competition. He made a strong case for himself with his refinement, precision and liquid, vibrant tone – more in the vein of Daniels than Scholl – in arias by Riccardo Broschi (brother of Carlo, aka Farinelli), Handel (the tempestuous ‘Crude furie’ from Serse) and Rossini – Tancredi’s ‘Di tanti palpiti’, delivered with panache, if not with a similarly well-schooled mezzo’s thrilling sense of bel canto overdrive.  


For your chance to relive any of the week’s events, visit

News round up

13 June 2009

  • The Salzburg Festival has announced that that Alexander Pereiria, currently general manager of the Zurich Opera House, will take over as artistic director of the festival from October 2010, planning his first event  in 2011. Salzburg's current director, Jurgen Flimm, unexpectedly announced in Dec 2008 that he would step down from the post. Meanwhile, Andreas Homoki, currently Intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin, will succeed Pereira in Zurich.


  • Opera America has announced that the contract of its president and CEO, Marc A Scorca, has been extended through 2016.. In 2010, OPERA America will celebrate 40 years of service to the opera community and Scorca's 20th anniversary with the organisation.


  • Cecilia Bartoli has won this year’s Sonning Music Prize, worth 80,000 Euro. The prize has been awarded annually by the Léonine Sonning Muisc Foundation in Denmark since 1959. Bartoli will receive the honour at a concert in Tivoli, Italy, in 2010.


  • Washington National Opera (WNO) has announced that Jane Lipton Cafritz has been appointed Chairman of the company’s Board of Trustees, effective July 1, 2009. Cafritz succeeds John J Pohanka, who has served as Chairman for four years.  

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World launches new award for young artists

12 June 2009

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World finalists, Yuriy Mynenko, Ukraine; Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, Russia; Jan Martinik, Czech Republic; Eri Nakamura, Japan and Giordano Luca, Italy
BBC Cardiff Singer of the World finalists, Yuriy Mynenko, Ukraine; Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, Russia; Jan Martinik, Czech Republic; Eri Nakamura, Japan and Giordano Luca, Italy

As the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition got underway earlier this week, a new award was launched to support young singers at the start of their careers.

Menna Richards, director of BBC Wales, announced the new bursary at the opening night of the Song Competition on 6 June: ‘A very generous lady and follower of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, Annie Sankey, has left the competition a bequest and I am thrilled this evening to be able to announce a new bursary in her name to support singers who take part in the competition.’  

The bursary will be awarded in addition to the two other prizes offered over the 10-day competition. It comprises a £5000 award for the winner of the Song Competition, and a prize of £15000 for the winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.  

This year’s finalists comprise of the youngest and oldest competitors from the competition and were each winners in their own concert performance which took place over this week. Yurjy Mynenko, who won Concert 3 will be flying the flag for Ukraine and is also the first ever countertenor to have made it to the final.  

The Song Competition final will take place tonight (12 June) at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, followed by the main BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition final on Sunday 14 June.

Opera Now correspondent Yehuda Shapiro will be reporting from the finals of the Singer of the World this weekend. Visit this Opera Now webpage to read his assessment of the results.  

To follow the results of the competition heats and to view highlights from the week’s events, visit

Furniture giant unpacks its first opera

10 June 2009, London UK

Flatpack Tom Lane



Review by Antonia Couling

This was a trip to IKEA with a difference. We were not used to being greeted by movement artists in the furniture giant's trademark yellow and blue livery, dancing with IKEA holdalls and clambering over the displays. Led up the escalator by a one of Mammoth Music Theatre's enterprising singers, we began our operatic exploration of home furnishings.

The concept for this opera was a cleverly thought-through. Every prop was sourced from the store and the action took place within the showroom cells (the cheapest sets going), moving from sitting rooms to studies, offices and bedrooms. Two couples experience the typical effects of shopping and the domestic tensions that  inevitably ensue. The libretto consisted almost entirely of the repetition of IKEA product names, variously inflected to evoke appropriate emotions. A highlight was a scene where a character tried to assemble a bookcase, utterly flummoxed by the instructions and the need for four pairs of hands. Throughout his ordeal he sang ‘Billy, Billy, Billy’, in longing, frustration, anger and finally satisfaction when the job was done.

This is a show that could catch on, not least for its unusual theatrical impact  in a very public place, where real customers shopping around us added their own dimension to the performance. While some IKEA punters did join our little throng of spectators, it was fascinating to observe others who totally ignored the fact that someone was singing at full volume in an area they wanted to explore, and walked right into the performance to check the runners on a chest of drawers.

As for us opera goers, it was impossible to ignore shopping opportunities as we were led around the store, and I found myself making mental notes of things that took our fancy. I even lost my mother at one point (again, part of the IKEA experience) when her eye was caught by a particularly appealing kitchen utensil. 

Tom Lane’s music was performed on keyboard, accordion, cello and viola, and sadly failed to live up to the ideas in this piece. Sparing in variation and range (apparently it was all inspired by the two notes that the composer’s food mixer makes), the score was pretty repetitive and uninventive.  But nonetheless, this was a strong illustration of how opera can convey feelings and sentiments that permeate every day experiences in a way that other art forms can’t.


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