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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

Opera North General Director gives reaction to ROH Manchester plans

18 December 2009

Richard Mantle (General Director, Opera North):
Richard Mantle (General Director, Opera North): "This is a post-recession, post-Olympics project."

When the plans for Royal Opera House Manchester (ROHM) were first announced in October 2008, Opera North’s General Director, Richard Mantle, told The Times that Manchester was “currently underserved with opera and ballet. When you look at the size of the theatregoing population”, he explained, “I think we could have more. It is something we [at Opera North] have been looking at providing ourselves.”

Now that ROHM has taken a step closer to reality, (click here for the full story), Opera Now asked Richard Mantle what impact he thinks the plans are likely to have for audiences in the north-west of England, and what role Opera North will play.

Richard Mantle: “Although not resident in Manchester, Opera North has in a sense been the opera company for Manchester and the north-west. We serve Manchester as a touring company – not just during our performances at The Lowry for three weeks per year, but also through education work, concerts with the orchestra and a range of other activities. Our frustration is that within our remit we have not been able to grow the audience as much as we would have liked and which, I believe, would be possible: the potential in Manchester is perhaps even greater than for the Leeds conurbation.”

“So I’ve always believed that the idea of developing opera in a much stronger way in Manchester is something that should happen. One of the problems in the past was also the lack of good venues. Opera North now performs in The Lowry, which we love, though it does pose a few challenges of its own, such as accessibility via public transport links.”

“I welcomed the idea of ROHM when it came along. Whether it is the right solution will need to be explored in the long run. However, it has opened up the whole dialogue, and has captivated the Manchester City Council. There is now a strong consensus growing within the Council to move this project forward. Any new development on this scale of course needs leadership, and with Manchester that’s more likely to come from the City Council than from the Royal Opera House.”

Opera Now: The Royal Opera’s recent announcement about their new ‘understanding’ with The Lowry also hinted at possible co-producing partnerships between ROHM and other arts companies in the region. Opera North was specifically mentioned in this context, with ROHM positioned to "produce premieres by Opera North as part of a full programme by that company." Has a clear understanding similar to that now in place with The Lowry also been established between The Royal Opera and Opera North?

Richard Mantle: “It’s a bit early for that. Of course, The Lowry’s concern was that they would be sidelined. We all felt that The Lowry had to be part of the solution for lyric work, so the discussions that have taken place during the past few months – to bring them on board as part of this solution and establish their identity as the regional centre for dance – are very important.”

“I’m not worried at this stage that Opera North is not being cited in the same way. It has been clear from the beginning that The Royal Opera won’t be able to ‘go it alone’ with a project of this scale.”

“Also, within the Arts Council’s thinking on ‘spheres of responsibility’, Opera North is firmly responsible for delivering activity in the north-west of England, in the same way that Welsh National Opera is responsible for Wales. We are certainly not talking about a takeover and I don’t think anyone would want that. Opera North’s work will still remain distinct from that of The Royal Opera, and Tony Hall has made it clear from the outset that Opera North will play a central role in these plans if and when they come to fruition.”

“To a great extent ROHM is all about branding, since it’s clear that The Royal Opera is not going to move its base from London. In fact, the number of Royal Opera performances in Manchester will only be around 20 to 25 per year. The idea is therefore to establish a centre that provides plenty of scope for bringing in partners and other collaborators.”

Opera Now: With Opera North already presenting its productions at Sadler's Wells, do you think, more broadly, that ROHM will help to open up a stronger dialogue between arts organisations in London and the north-west of England?

Richard Mantle: “These reports always seem to be London-centric, as if we’re sitting in the regions for crumbs for the table, but it’s not like that. Opera North is the largest publicly funded arts organisation in the north of England, so if this project goes ahead I would like to see it opening up more of a two-way street, for example by creating more opportunities for London audiences to see performances by Opera North, while The Royal Opera could perhaps look even further afield with a view to developing a national remit.”

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