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Suffolk Opera presents Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

1 January 2010, Bury St Edmunds, UK

(Photo: Suffolk Opera)

Rosie Johnston reports on Suffolk Opera's production of Eugene Onegin in Bury St Edmunds.

Suffolk Opera bit off more than it could chew with Eugene Onegin;  a piano reduction of Tchaikovsky’s multi-textured, emotionally complex orchestral score was never going to convey the dramatic and psychological narrative. Despite brave attempts by Music Director Peter Cowdrey to keep form and pace from the piano, the evening was unshaped by Robin Martin Oliver’s directing. Tatiana’s journey from an inexperienced country girl on the brink of sexual and emotional awakening was virtually ignored and key relationships, notably between Tatiana and Onegin, and Onegin and Lensky, were underdeveloped.

Martin Oliver went spectacularly against the grain with Tatiana’s bedroom; a luxury double with satin sheets and pillows? All that was missing was the mini-bar.  Lynsey Docherty sang with emotion and intellect and she has a strong top to her soprano.  Her letter scene started with uncertainty however a solid relationship developed between her and Cowdrey and between them they achieved pathos without descending into sentimentality.

In Act II, Tchaikovsky’s masterstroke was to keep Tatiana mute at her own party. She has virtually no music apart from one poignant line that floats over the anguish of the ensemble. She is a tortured onlooker and yet Martin Oliver had Tatiana giggling and simpering in reaction to Triquet’s attention. Alex Wingfield was a young, attractive Triquet; although the couplets are a hackneyed set piece he sang sensitively and with charm; a different take on the usual wheel-on-the-panto-dame type proffered in so many productions.

Hugo Tucker sang a poignant Lensky; his voice is light but with robust high notes, if a little less rounded in the lower register.  His fatalistic poet, unconsciously bent on his own destruction, worked beautifully in the duel scene; the canon with Onegin was well paced and moving.

Luke Williams’ Onegin had the necessary charisma; his lyric baritone has richness in sound and colour and he gave us an anti-hero the audience could identify with and believe in until his rape-like assault on Tatiana in Act III scene II undid any audience sympathy.  Add the appearance of Lensky’s ghost like a confused escapee from the chamber of horrors, and the drama dribbled awkwardly away

Suffolk Opera’s chorus managed to stay in time and maintain energy throughout, although ‘statue mode’ scenes are problematic for the most professional of choruses; I’m always drawn to a wobble or a leg twitch. Suffolk Opera will be on terra much firma with Offenbach's La belle Hélène, scheduled for November 2010.


Kentish Opera presents Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld

1 January 2010, Tonbridge, UK

(Photo: Kentish Opera)

Rosie Johnston reports on Kentish Opera's production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at Tonbridge School.

Kentish Opera gave a hilarious account of Offenbach’s inverted Orphic tale at the E.M. Forster theatre in Tonbridge. There were pitch problems in the string section and temerity in conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald’s approach to the overture but Director Terry John Bates wrung every last drop of parody from an already overstocked libretto. Public Opinion, starting the piece with pseudo severity, was played by Nicola Smedley as Anne Robinson, complete with clipboard, snarl and threats of ejecting the weakest link. Euridice was re-incarnated as Tara Palmer Tomkinson run amok in the groves of Thebes; a  pastoral shopaholic fused to her MP3 player as Orpheus scratches away at his violin. The role was stunningly sung by Stephanie Kemball Read. She has superb high notes which resonated effortlessly above chorus and orchestra and her transition from sing to spiel was faultless – a true all round performer. David Newman acted well in the role of Orpheus as frustrated musician and irritated husband. His tenor lacked clarity at times but his fusty, middle-management  comedy contrasted well with Kemball Read’s ego fuelled, high octane Euridice.

Joe Shovelton as Aristaeus/Pluto was tentative to start with; his projection lacked heft and he seemed ill at ease whilst crawling through the cardboard wheat sheafs in sexual predator mode. He warmed up however, and managed an effortless fireman’s lift when kidnapping Euridice.
Ian Belsey’s Jupiter was funny if deliberately stagey – he’d make an excellent Widow Twankey. Vocally he has good control and pitch.  There were excellent supporting performances from Lisa Swayne (Diana), Letitia Perry (Minerva) and Nicola Widenbach as Juno, all with light, pretty voices and gorgeous, bosom heaving costumes.  Myvanwy Bentall as cupid was exquisite; perhaps the most natural performance of the evening with her subtle inflection and beautifully coloured soprano.  Greg Tassell as Mercury represented was a football kicking, zoot suit wearing yoof with attitude; the audience loved him although it seemed as if the characterisation detracted from the vocal performance;  the timbre of his tenor was dry at times.

The chorus deserves a huge puff; non-professionals of all ages, they sang and high kicked their way through the burlesque; clearly loving it.  The performance’s apotheosis, the much anticipated ‘le gallop’ (the can-can, as we know it) had the necessary sand-blaster energy.

Bates played hilariously on the contrast between the Gods, bored to death on Mount Olympus and the sexy low-life of Hades, where dead is very much alive; Carol Stevenson’s costumes were beautifully thought out considering inevitable budget constraints.


Herrenchiemsee Festival, Bavaria – 14-26 July 2009

1 January 2010, Vol 21, Jan/Feb 2010

The Herrenchiemsee Palace
The Herrenchiemsee Palace

Alpine horns at sunset in Herrenchiemsee
Alpine horns at sunset in Herrenchiemsee

Herrenchiemsee's Hall of Mirrors
Herrenchiemsee's Hall of Mirrors

Reviewed by Amanda Holloway:

Bregenz, Savonlinna – both venerable festivals that rely for their charm on an idyllic lakeside setting. Now add to these Herrenchiemsee, a wooded island on the beautiful Chiemsee lake, 50 miles east of Munich.

The Herrenchiemsee experience starts on the jetty at Prien, where you board a paddle steamer for the 15-minute journey to Herrenchiemsee Island, disembark and take a horse-drawn carriage (or a romantic stroll) through the woods. And suddenly you arrive at Herrenchiemsee Palace, an extraordinary copy of Versailles built in the late 19th century for Ludwig II of Bavaria, as a homage to his hero Louis Quatorze.

The annual music festival based in this fairytale castle has at its heart an opera production, but with a majority of choral and symphonic concerts, it is not yet an opera festival. Given the budget, festival founder Enoch zu Guttenberg would love to do more. A composer and conductor of the KlangVerwaltung orchestra, Guttenberg is a Bavarian aristocrat whose son happens to be the Defence Minister of Germany. It was Guttenberg’s musical achievements that attracted the attention of Deutsche Bank Chairman Josef Ackerman, and led to significant sponsorship for the Herrenchiemsee Festival. Guttenberg had initially been approached by Bavarian politicians to start a festival in the palace, but was doubtful about how it would pay for itself when the concert hall seated only 600. As he recalls. "We were lucky, because Josef Ackermann is a musician at heart, and now Deutsche Bank pays for the whole festival. 1.4 million euros every year. And we need it!"

Sponsorship is guaranteed for the next four years, at which point Ackermann steps down. It will be a challenge finding a replacement in the current economic climate, but Guttenberg is determined that ticket prices won’t rise. "We don’t want only rich people, we want everybody to come." With Munich and Salzburg so near, it must be hard to attract people to this relatively small venue, but Guttenberg says the festival has a different approach. "Each year we choose a theme, or concept, which makes people think about politics and society."

The last three festivals have seen semi-staged productions of La traviata, Nabucco and Cavalleria rusticana, led by Italian conductor Ljubka Biagioni zu Guttenberg. She is the wife of the Artistic Director, but she’s also an international conductor in her own right. And crucially, she has a vision of how opera can work in these extraordinary surroundings. A 98-metre Hall of Mirrors doesn’t immediately suggest the poverty-stricken Sicilian landscape of Cavalleria rusticana, for example. But dramatically and musically this semi-staged performance worked. Genuine human emotion radiated from the stage across the acres of glittering gold leaf and chandeliers, drawing the audience into the unfolding tragedy from the opening bars of the overture. With a few props from her own garden  – a chair, a brightly painted horsecart – and costumes depicting generic village folk, Ms Guttenberg created a thoroughly believable world for her vivid characters.

The orchestra, Sinfonia Varsovia, sat in the centre of a stepped stage with the action swirling around them. With vibrato kept to a minimum, the colours and dynamic contrasts of this responsive band were thrilling to the ear (their former conductors have included Yehudi Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy), in spite of very limited rehearsal time.
Though the front stage was the focus of the drama, there was much use of the anterooms for dramatic entrances and exits. Turiddu’s first lovely aria floated through the mirrored doors before he appeared, and what a spine-tingling sound that was. It’s the first time I’ve heard the Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko, and his rich, dark tenor, handsome face and burly frame was well suited to the role of Turiddu. His Santuzza (Dimitra Theodossiou), was every inch the wronged woman, her powerful soprano ragged with emotion.

Much of the emotional veracity of the performance came from Ms Guttenberg, elegant in a black silk coat, hair upswept, and completely in command of her orchestra and the singers swirling around her. The standing ovation went on for hours, and she deserved nothing less.

The 2010 festival takes place from 13-25 July, and the programme includes choral and orchestral music from Bach to Penderecki, Enoch zu Guttenberg’s signature Bruckner and, for opera lovers, a semi-staged Die Zauberföte and a spectacular Rigoletto. Not hard to find the political and social message in that! 


News round-up - 23 December 2009

23 December 2009

Tosca, Act III, from Luc Bondy's production for The Metropolitan Opera
Tosca, Act III, from Luc Bondy's production for The Metropolitan Opera

Italian soprano Mirella Freni
Italian soprano Mirella Freni

Decision pending following controversy over Luc Bondy’s new production

Metropolitan Opera general manager, Peter Gelb, has announced that the company is considering reviving Franco Zeffirelli’s retired production of Tosca during the 2010-11 season. Gelb stressed that this possibility is unconnected with the controversy surrounding Luc Bondy’s new production, which was booed when it opened The Met’s current season. Instead, Gelb cited scheduling challenges associated with Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle, an explanation described by Zeffirelli as “an escape, an excuse”. The final decision will be taken before the company’s 2010-11 season is announced in February.

Italian soprano Mirella Freni to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award

Italian soprano Mirella Freni has been announced as the winner of the 2010 Midem Classical Awards ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’. Freni will receive her award at a gala event in January, held during the record industry’s annual trade fair in Cannes, France. She was selected by an international jury comprising representatives of magazines, websites and artist management organisations.

Glimmerglass Opera operating budget down by 20% against 2009

Glimmerglass Opera - the annual opera festival based in Cooperstown, New York State - has reduced its 2010 operating budget by roughly $1 million compared with 2009. Next year's starting price for tickets has also been slashed from $58 to $26 in a move designed to attract new audiences. Four full productions will staged at the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Springfield between 9 July and 24 August 2010.

This year’s award ceremony speeches now available online

The 2010 Musical America Awards ceremony took place at New York’s Lincoln Center last week. The award recipients included Musician of the Year, Riccardo Muti, and Vocalist of the Year, Elina Garanca. The 33-year-old Latvian soprano said that she was “shocked” to receive her award since she has performed only rarely in the US – a situation due to change very soon when she performs the role of Carmen at The Met on New Year’s Eve.

Glyndebourne’s Gus Christie weds soprano Danielle de Niese

Executive Chairman of Glyndebourne Productions, Augustus (‘Gus’) Christie, has married his fiancé of ten months, Danielle de Niese.  The Australian lyric soprano of Sri Lankan and Dutch ancestry made her Glyndebourne Festival debut in 2005 as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Rumours of the couple’s relationship were confirmed publicly in 2007 and de Niese subsequently performed the title role in L'Incoronazione di Poppea at the 2008 Festival. Christie separated from his former wife, Imogen, in 2004.

Rolando Villazón announces his return to the stage

18 December 2009

Mexican tenor, Roland Villazón (Photo: Pamela Springsteen courtesy Virgin Classics)
Mexican tenor, Roland Villazón (Photo: Pamela Springsteen courtesy Virgin Classics)

Mexican tenor, Rollando Villazón, has announced that he will return to the stage in March 2010 following surgery on his vocal cords. His first appearance will be a one-off performance at the Vienna State Opera as Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore on 22 March 2010.

Villazón cancelled all his 2009 engagements following the discovery of a vocal cyst, which was successfully removed in Paris earlier this year.

Announcing his 2010 dates via a video message on his official website, Villazón explained that “I am currently singing and am just polishing little details to be able to come back as soon as possible to the stage next year.” He also thanked people who sent him letters and gifts during his period of recovery, saying “I can feel the warmth of your hearts and this has meant so much to me during this time.”

Vocal cysts are not unusual amongst singers and actors. An early symptom of the condition is a slight roughening in vocal quality, which a singer is more likely to notice and seek help for than a non singer.

Describing the anatomy, treatment methods and potential impact of a cyst on a singer’s career, Tom Harris (Consultant ENT surgeon and specialist in Voice Disorders with the British Voice Association), explained to Opera Now:

“The first thing to understand is that a cyst is buried deeply in the body of the vocal cords (or, more accurately, the vocal folds), inhibiting the smooth movement of the folds’ cover. This superfical cover is normally very pliable and slides upwards as the airstream pushes the vocal folds apart during voicing. They can be seen in stroboscopic light breaking like waves on a shore over the top surface of the vocal folds: it is this movement that gives us the clear quality or timbre to the voice.”

“The symptoms of a vocal fold cyst will vary depending on the location of the cyst. It is very important to remember that cysts are not related to poor singing technique - in fact, it is more likely that the singer has to be very skilled in order to sing around the problem.”
“Typically, the cyst will make one vocal fold stiffer than the other. During voicing, the vocal folds come together and meet in the midline of the airway, so the normal vocal fold is constantly impacting against the stiff swelling. This can cause a reactionary swelling in the normal fold. If this happens, the vocal quality will start to become breathier as the two swellings wedge the folds apart, preventing their normal closure.”

“Long periods of sustained singing are likely to cause the symptoms to worsen, while rest improves things temporarily.”
“Surgical removal of a cyst should only be undertaken by a surgeon who has specialised in micorsurgical techniques for voice disorders. It is also important that the singer's problem is properly diagnosed so the correct surgical approach is used.”

“Post surgical recovery from the removal of a cyst takes several months and the success of the operation can vary. If the cyst has been removed completely without damaging the superficial cover then the results are likely to be good. In these cases the singer usually experiences improved flexibility that makes singing easier, and after an appropriate period of rehabilitation a patient such as Villazón should be able to return to a full and busy schedule without concerns or special precautions.”

One look at Villazón’s schedule for 2010 confirms this optimistic prognosis: the 37-year-old’s opera roles next year will include Lensky in a revival of Eugene Onegin at the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim, his Zürich Opera debut as Alfredo in La traviata, and Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, plus numerous concert and recital appearances throughout Europe and in Mexico.

Visit Rolando Villazón's official website

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