Holly Mathieson Conjures Up Atmospheric Lakmé in Holland Park

July 29, 2015

United StatesUnited States Delibes, Lakmé: Soloists, City of London Sinfonia/Holly Mathieson (conductor). Opera Holland Park, London, 27.7.2015 (CC) Read more

Compelling Revival of Morning Heroes at the Three Choirs Festival

July 29, 2015

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (5). Sibelius, Bliss: Malcolm Sinclair (narrator), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 27.7.2015 (JQ) Read more

The Soul of Uto Ughi

July 25, 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Bizet / Sarasate, RavelOrchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Conductor, George Pehlivanian, Uto Ughi (violin).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica Rome   23.07.2015. (JB) Read more

‘The Play’s the Thing’: Shakespeare and Mendelssohn Combine to Excellent Effect

July 24, 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2015 – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn: Members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anna Sideris (soprano), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano), Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera/Douglas Boyd (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 22.7.2015 (JPr)

Garsington  Opera  RSC  Ross  Armstrong  Joan  Iyiola Forbes  Masson  Simon  Manyonda  Hedydo  Dylan  Marty  Cruickshank  credit  Mark  Douet

Garsington Opera RSC Ross Armstrong Joan Iyiola Forbes Masson Simon Manyonda Hedydo Dylan Marty Cruickshank credit Mark Douet

Lysander: Ross Armstrong
Helena: Hedydd Dylan
Egeus / Philostrate: David Collings
Flute / Mustardseed: Chris Lew Kum Hoi
Hermia: Joan Iyiola
Puck: Oliver Johnstone
Starveling/Moth: Jake Mann
Demetrius: Simon Manyonda
Snout / Peaseblossom: Chris Nayak
Oberon / Theseus: David Rintoul
Quince: Tim Speyer
Bottom: Forbes Masson
Titania / Hippolyta: Marty Cruickshank
Snug / Cobweb: Sophie Khan Levy

Director: Owen Horsley (under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran)
Design Associate: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Caroline Burrell


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the one (only?) Shakespeare play to which I am happy to return time and again. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, remarks Lysander near the start and the truth of this soon becomes clearly apparent in what is one of his best-loved comedies, where fantasy, magic, mischief and slapstick unite against the backdrop of Theseus’s Athenian Court and a feuding fairy kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. Also thrown into this mix are six ‘Rude Mechanicals’ who are attempting to put on a play-within-a-play. There are probably darker elements to the plot such as Hermia’s father being willing to send her to a nunnery or have her executed if she does not marry the man of his choice. And what is that stuff all about concerning Titania’s Indian page boy that Oberon demands from her? As I did on this evening – and have done countless times before – it is best to just sit back and enjoy Shakespeare’s eternal battle of wills, misunderstandings, and all the ensuing fun.

Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, 16 years after he wrote the more familiar Overture. It was written for King Frederick William IV of Prussia for a performance of the play on 14 October 1843 at Potsdam. These days, putting on the play and including everything Mendelssohn wrote would be inconceivable for any theatre company so it was an interesting idea for Wormsley’s Garsington Opera – with its orchestra and chorus – to invite the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform an abridged version of the play to Mendelssohn’s complete score.

The original Overture was incorporated into the incidental music as the first of its 14 numbers. There are also vocal sections and some other purely instrumental movements, including a Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March. The vocal numbers include the song ‘Ye spotted snakes’ and a number of melodramas where music is designed to enhance Shakespeare’s text. Act I is generally played without music. The Scherzo, acts as an intermezzo between Acts I and II. There is then the first melodrama, a passage of text spoken over music. Oberon’s arrival is accompanied by a fairy march, scored with triangle and cymbals. ‘Ye spotted snakes’ opens Act II’s second scene. The second Intermezzo comes at the end of the second act. Act III includes a quaint march for the entrance of the Mechanicals. We soon hear music quoted from the Overture to accompany the action. The Nocturne accompanies the sleeping lovers between Acts III and IV and there is only one melodrama in Act IV which closes with a reprise of the Nocturne to accompany the mortal lovers’ sleep. In the RSC’s abridged version it was now interval time.

The famous Wedding March – probably the most popular single piece of music Mendelssohn ever composed – was originally the intermezzo between the last two acts. Act V contains more music than any other, to accompany the wedding feast. There is a brief fanfare for trumpets and timpani, a parody of a funeral march, and a Bergomask dance which makes significant use of Bottom’s ‘braying’ from the Overture. There are three brief epilogues. The first is introduced with a reprise of the theme of the Wedding March and the fairy music of the Overture. After Puck’s speech, the final musical number is heard – ‘Through this house give glimmering light’, scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Puck’s famous valedictory speech ‘If we shadows have offended’ is accompanied, as day breaks, by the four chords first heard at the very beginning of the Overture, bringing everything full circle and wrapping it all up.

Overall the music was well played by the small Garsington Opera Orchestra and spiritedly conducted by Douglas Boyd with the chorus and soloists Anna Sideris and Catherine Backhouse doing well during their small contributions, notably in the ‘fairies’ song’, ‘Ye spotted snakes’, as Titania is lulled to sleep. Heard on their own during the Overture the sound from the orchestra was not as ethereal as it must be. However, as the evening progressed the marriage of words and music became well-nigh perfect. In the intimate setting of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall it was revealing how much Wagner’s music owes to Mendelssohn and that probably explains why he became one of Mendelssohn’s fiercest critics!

Owen Horsley’s staging mixed the tradition with the modern and this extended to the casting that seemed admirably keen to eschew any unanimity of age, gender, ethnicity, accents, costuming and acting styles. It is as though the Royal Shakespeare Company looked around and collected together some of those who happened to be available and find them a part to play. In 1971 there was a TV adaptation for the BBC of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Robert Stephens as Oberon and an exceptional cast including Eileen Atkins (Titania) and Ronnie Barker as Bottom. This is my ‘benchmark’ performance which is always – wrongly or rightly – in my mind whenever I sit down to see the play again. I also played Oberon myself when I was much younger and I suspect that was the definitive portrayal of this role … only joking!

Rosanna Vize’s eclectic modern clothes and spare set evoked nothing of the period or location of Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece. This was rather jarring at first but increasing less relevant as the story-telling became more convincing and Mendelsohn’s sublime music created more and more of the requisite magical atmosphere. At the back over the orchestra there was basically a large moon and a platform for the singers on which all the characters could run hither and thither as they did across too smaller bits of staging on either side at the front of the stage.

I often have seen actors double up as Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania but I wonder have these characters ever been played by two who are not in the first flush of youth as David Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank are. They brought gravitas to their ruling class roles and their ‘old school’ acting gave them an otherworldly presence as ‘fairies’. Rintoul thankfully looked remarkable good when having to play Oberon bare-chested behind a white dinner jacket. I was a bit sorry for Marty Cruickshank who is undoubtedly a fine actress but was made to go about as if an escapee from a care home. That was the only thing about Owen Horsley’s production I could not eventually come to accept. The four lovers grew on me and especially Hedydd Dylan’s Helena that I cannot remember seeing performed better. I eventually realised that Puck was Oliver Johnston who came initially out of the orchestra and acted on occasions as an onstage/offstage conductor …if this makes any sense. Together with Oberon they did provide real touches of magic when transferring the flower with the love juice between themselves!

Best of course – as always – were the scene-stealing Mechanicals, including a fabulous Flute/Thisbe from Chris Lew Kum Hoi, thick red lipstick and all, and a genuinely funny Bottom from Falkirk-born Forbes Masson whose accent as Pyramus had the lilt of his compatriot Billy Connolly, as well as, something of his comic timing. I was also impressed by Sophie Khan Levy as Snug who gets the ‘lion’s part’ and here was given a mane made of large paint brushes and Chris Nayak as Snout, one of the funniest ‘walls’ I have ever seen.

To quote the Bard: ‘The play’s the thing’ and it won in the end … and Mendelsohn’s music helped a lot too!

Jim Pritchard

For more details about Garsington Opera and the 2016 performances visit their website http://www.garsingtonopera.org/ .


Pinchas Zukerman Commemorates the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

July 23, 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Bruch, Brahms. Diana Adamyan (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (conductor/violin), Cadogan Hall, London. 21.7.2015 (LB) Read more

Igor Levit’s Virtuosity Serves Cardew and Rzewski Compellingly

July 23, 2015


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cardew and Rzewski: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.7.2015 (MB) Read more

Plácido Domingo’s Operalia – A Flawed Competition but with the Correct Result

July 20, 2015

Plácido Domingo’s 2015 Operalia:  Finalists, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera; Plácido Domingo (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 19.7.2015 (JPr)


This is it

Plácido Domingo and Operalia 2015 Winners c Alastair Muir

In addition to vying for the competition’s main prizes, Carroll, Hotea, Howarth, Park and Pati competed in Operalia’s Zarzuela category (requiring preparation of a zarzuela aria for the audition-style quarter- and semi-finals).

Plácido Domingo has said that ‘My purpose in Operalia is to help identify not only the best voices, but also to discover those singers whose personalities, characters and powers of interpretation show that they have the potential to become complete artists. Individuals such as these become tomorrow’s stars.’ This major international singing competition was being held in London for the first time in its 22-year history. It began on 13 July with quarter-finals and semi-finals which were closed to the public but the finals on 19 July took place before an audience.

Founded in 1993, Operalia is open to singers of all voice types between the ages of 18 and 32. The competition has promoted artists of the calibre of Angel Blue, Joseph Calleja, José Cura, Joyce DiDonato, Carmen Giannattasio, Ana María Martínez, Ailyn Pérez, Erwin Schrott, Nina Stemme, Rolando Villazón and Sonya Yoncheva. From those applying to enter the competition – which is hosted by a different city every year – only 40 are chosen to participate and compete in front of a jury of 10 leading industry professionals, including general managers and casting directors from some of the most important international opera houses. These included the Royal Opera’s Peter Mario Katona and Bayreuth’s Eva Wagner-Pasquier. Although Plácido Domingo does not vote himself he is actively present throughout the competition, offering advice on artistic and career development to all of the participants and sensitively accompanying them by conducting the orchestra. Introducing the event he seemed especially ‘chuffed’ to be presenting Operalia at Covent Garden on the stage and with the orchestra with which he has had a 44-year association.

Operalia awards two $30,000 first prizes, two $20,000 second prizes, and two $10,000 third prizes, with one male and one female singer receiving prizes in each category. In addition, one man and woman each receives a $15,000 Birgit Nilsson prize for his or her performance of an aria by Richard Strauss or Richard Wagner. Likewise, among those participating in the Zarzuela category, one male and one female singer receives a $10,000 Zarzuela prize, given and named in honour of Plácido Domingo’s parents — who were stars of the Spanish form of operetta — and meant to encourage singers to work in the art form. Two audience-prize winners, awarded by polling those watching the finals concert, get watches offered by Rolex, the competition’s sponsor. Finally, Bertita and Guillermo Martinez from Culturarte de Puerto Rico support a $10,000 Culturarte Prize. So almost everyone has a chance of a prize and that is perhaps how it should be? I have long given up on the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition with different voice types competing against each other for one main top prize and – more often than not – having a soprano win.

Open to singers from every country and of every voice type, this year’s competition drew more than one thousand initial applicants. Of the 40 candidates invited to London, 20 went through to the semi-finals and 11 to the final. Contralto Claudia Huckle, who won the Birgit Nilsson Prize in 2013, is the only British singer ever to have been awarded a prize – surely pause for thought? Sadly this year – despite being hosted at Covent Garden – there was only one British singer in the initial 40 and she – mezzo-soprano Catherine Young – did not get through to the public final.  Amongst all the nationalities competing there was notably no German singer. One of Royal Opera’s current Jette Parker Young Artists, Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth, did however win the Culturarte prize.

For about three decades with some on and off involvement in young singers and their auditions I have had the mantra that ‘The world does not need another soprano’ so I was grateful for Operalia for partly addressing this frequent competition bias. Sopranos were clearly going to get at least six prizes but male voices have the opportunity for just as many! It still remains a deeply flawed ‘competition’ in my opinion. Live streamed by Medici TV I suspect – unlike the Covent Garden audience – they will have had subtitles so that for the more unfamiliar arias and the zarzuelas it would have been clear what the contestants were actually singing about. Also why was South Korean Hyesang Park allowed to sing Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ Il dolce suono from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that went on … and on … seemed to finished and then took off again! Of course she should have an opportunity to show-off her talent but not to the extent that her single contribution seemed longer than that of the combined efforts of the five singers that preceded her. There was also too much Rossini and Donizetti with Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss (for which a $15,000 prize was on offer) as notable absentees.

The singers walk on – and unless they are also zarzuela finalists – sing their one aria and then quickly walk off with little time to acknowledge any applause … and that is it. I have no doubt that most of the judging will have been done before the public competition final. Despite all these reservations the result was probably correct and I have rarely found myself in as much agreement with an adjudication panel as I was when the results were announced. By far and away the most talented and promising singers were the Samoan-born Aucklander tenor Darren Pene Pati, who sang Tombe degli avi miei (also from Lucia di Lammermoor) and the almost impossibly tall Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen, who raised the rafters with Dich, teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. In an age when ‘big voices’ are frowned upon – at least in this country – these two singers could effortlessly fill the Royal Opera House in a way none of their fellow competitors could.

Darren Pene Pati had a wonderful Italianate sound and superb vocal control harnessed to subtle phrasing; Lise Davidsen is one of an endangered species and provides great hope for the future – she is a genuine dramatic soprano of Wagnerian proportions with a strong lower register and gleaming top. To be honest most of the rest of those competing were a mixed bunch and apart from Hyesang Park’s dazzling – though albeit very studied – coloratura, the only singer who really created an impression was Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea who sang Ah mes amis from Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment with its infamous nine high Cs. As well as he sang this – for me – any ‘wow’ factor was missing and I thought his voice was a size too small. However in a video before the prize-giving one of those interviewed explained how important ‘physical appearance’ was to the members of the jury. Ioan Hotea was slim and handsome and Darren Pene Pati more charismatic but big and broad. When I heard what was said it was obvious that Hotea would win the First Prize. This proved correct and I was glad Pati was second. The audience appreciating that the voice is more important than appearance placed Pati first – though according to Domingo there were only three votes separating him from the second-placed singer who I suspect must have been Hotea! Not surprisingly, Lise Davidsen won the Female Audience Prize and also took away the Brigit Nilsson Prize. Her $45,000 and a Rolex wristwatch was not bad for her week’s work!

From 2011-2013, Ioan Hotea was an ensemble member of the Bucharest National Opera, with roles including Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore and Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.  Future engagements include Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Nemorino in Wiesbaden, and Dorvil in La scala di seta in Liège. A recent graduate of The Royal Danish Opera Academy in Copenhagen, Lise Davidsen made her debut at the Norwegian National Opera earlier this year as Susanna in Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna.  In November, she will make her debut at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich as Ortlinde in Die Walküre.

The full list of winners is as follows:

First Prizes of $30,000: Ioan Hotea, Romania/Lise Davidsen, Norway

Second Prizes of $20,000: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Hyesang Park, South Korea

Third Prizes of $10,000: Edward Parks, USA/Noluvuyiso Mpofu, South Africa

Birgit Nilsson Prize of $15,000: Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Pepita Embil Domingo Zarzuela Prize of $10,000: Hyesang Park, South Korea

The Don Plácido Domingo, Sr, Zarzuela Prize of $10,000: Ioan Hotea, Romania

Audience Prizes, Rolex Wristwatches: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Culturarte Prize of $10,000: Kiandra Howarth, Australia

Jim Pritchard

For more about Operalia visit http://www.operaliacompetition.org/



Maestri Takes Command in Covent Garden’s Drab Falstaff

July 20, 2015

Falstaff c Catherine Ashmore

ROH’s Falstaff c Catherine Ashmore

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi. Falstaff: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Michael Schønwandt.(conductor) Royal Opera House, London, 15.7.2015 (CC) Read more

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