Hipermestra, Glyndebourne 2017

Review Round-Up: Hipermestra / Glyndebourne

Susannah Clap marks 20 years of being a theatre critic in the Observer today, in which she concludes on the ongoing need for critics “to speak up for the not-yet-popular and the supposedly past it.

Here’s a round-up of what reviewers made of Glyndebourne’s production of Cavalli’s opera Hipermestra.

First, the Daily Express with an efficient synopsis.

“The tale is based on the Greek myth in which the 50 daughters of Argos’s King Danao are compelled on the wedding night to murder their bridegrooms – the 50 sons of Danao’s brother Egitto because Danao believes an oracle’s prediction that a nephew is to kill him.

Only the King’s eldest daughter, Hipermestra, defies his orders and helps her husband, Linceo, to escape. For this she is imprisoned by her father and suffers numerous indignities.”

Was Hipermestra an undiscovered gem? What’s On Stage (in what amounts to the most accessibly written review) had this warning.

“For an opera to languish unheard for centuries it must be pretty bad, you’d think. But Hipermestra, forgotten since 1680 until its recent rediscovery, turns out to be a jewel of the baroque. Though not one you can hum along to.”

Most reviews commented positively on designer Stuart Nunn’s investment. This from the Guardian.

“Designer Stuart Nunn and lighting designer Giuseppe Di Iorio have spared no shock-and-awe impact in this elaborate set, with its combat vehicles, shiny Mercedes car, oil derricks and a final scene of devastation straight from any current war zone.”

Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph gave the product four of five stars.

“Graham Vick’s staging is brilliantly slick. Using the “immersive” techniques he has honed with his work for Birmingham Opera Company, he opportunistically updates the scenario to a modern-day Gulf State where the mass wedding is set to be a big fat eat-your-heart-out affair – brides and grooms wander around the gardens before the show and a massive iced cake dominates the stage.”

The Express saw something different.

“One senses a hint of desperation in the director/designer team at the on-stage petrol pumps and limousine as Linceo marshals an army to attack Argos. An invading army truck gets wrecked and bursts into flames. Behind a wire barrier are pumping oil derricks, to remind us of a root cause of Middle East conflict today.”

Bachtrack concluded positively on Cavalli’s work.

As long as one doesn’t come with the expectations of Baroque arias à la Handel and are able to enjoy beautifully unfolding recitatives supported by endlessly imaginative playing, one is in for a treat.

The Independent (amongst others) flagged the performances of note.

“One is left with some glorious memories, notably Raffaelle Pe’s haut-contre purity, Benjamin Hullett’s vibrant tenor, Renato Dolcini’s baritonal warmth, Ermoke Barath’s soprano steel, Ana Quintans’s soprano sweetness, and the hilarious lord-of-misrule antics of Mark Wilde’s Berenice, here a dead ringer for Baba the Turk.”

So too Culture Whisper.

“Amid universally excellent singing, there are exceptional performances from the Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans as Hipermestra’s companion Elisa, notable for her range of colour and beautiful phrasing, Italian counter-tenor Raffaele Pe as the saved husband Linceo, the Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth in the title role, British tenor Benjamin Hulett as the jealous Arbante, and Italian baritone Renato Dolcini as feeble Danao.”

The Guardian‘s comment sums up the universally appreciated contribution members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave the production.

“It was, however, the 10 exceptional players in the pit – including Christie and the peerless lutenist Elizabeth Kenny – who gave this music pulse and vitality. Dressed in generic Middle Eastern attire, these members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were at times required to join the singers on stage. The two violins, Kati Debretzeni (leader) and Huw Daniel, negotiated a couple of fast-moving duets while ducking the action: some feat.”

David Mellor writing for The Daily Mail seemed unconvinced.

“Sadly, the money has been wasted, in a production I doubt will ever be revived. Something simpler would surely have done just as well. And maybe the left-over money could have been used to subsidise the seats for the young newcomers that Glyndebourne so sorely needs.”

Rupert Christiansen went a little further.

“If only the opera wasn’t such a colossal bore, offering barely five minutes of truly melodic arioso (most of it for Hipermestra herself) in its punishing 130-minute first half and only an exquisite quartet to lighten up the second. The remainder merely grinds through the stock formulas and cadences of Venetian baroque without any variation of pace or mood: for all the cosmetic surgery, the corpse remains inanimate.”

Hipermestra runs at Glyndebourne until Saturday 8 July 2017

BBC Proms 2016 / 74: Marin Alsop conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi’s Requiem

There’s an unnerving exercise in Professor Steve Peter’s ‘Chimp Paradox’ which helps uncover what your core, unshakeable, belief is.

It goes something like this. Imagine yourself on your deathbed. In the last 60 seconds of your life your grandchildren ask you for one last piece of advice. In the 60 seconds you have left to live, what would you tell them?

Go on, try it.*

The Real Last Night of the Proms** featured the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Marin Alsop, a grand setting of life’s most ultimate ending.

The evening felt as though we were tying-up loose ends too. A season coming to an end prompts inevitable evaluation and reflection. After that, there’s a need to empty the desk, tidy the classroom, switch off the lights, and close the door. Departures shouldn’t be rushed.

I had began the process on the train on my way to the Prom. An exchange between Radio 3 presenter Suzy Klein and Proms Unplucked podcast presenter Vikki Stone on the station’s drive-time programme still rang in my ears.

Suzy Klein: Your twice-weekly podcast throughout the Proms has seen you hang around backstage talking to all sorts of people behind the scenes hasn’t it Vikki?

Vikki Stone: Yes it has. It’s been great.  We didn’t really have a plan. I think that served us very well.

SK: I like the idea of there being a crack team of two people roaming backstage at the Proms asking ‘Hi, can we talk to you?’ – people who are quite busy.

VS: Yes, busy and quite important.

SK: What’s been your highlight?

VS: Well, we’ve been really lucky. I think one of the highlights was talking to Simon Rattle about Boulez. I didn’t know much about Boulez personally and he gave me this really fantastic idiot’s guide to Boulez. He’d just finished his rehearsal, we just stood on the stage – it wasn’t an official interview, we just had a conversation, it was really nice.

SK You just got a masterclass from one of the greatest living conductors on one of the greatest composers?

VS: Yeah, just hanging about.

SK: Who needs to bother going to University to learn about music? You could just hang around and ask really great people for stuff. Maybe that’s the way to just go through life. So, we’ve actually got a clip from the latest instalment of you with David Pickard, is that right?

VS: Yes, so we’ve interviewed David a few times and I suggested for the last episode that – he has on his Twitter profile that he will play piano duet – so we thought …

SK: We should explain that David does have a proper grown up job too – running the Proms.

VS: Yes. So we thought we’d catch up with him to find out how his first Proms has gone. You’re not going to hear all of the piano duet because I was sight-reading and I was just a bit sweary …

The exchange is, of course, benign. It’s just patter, filler, and self-promotion – it’s what I do, just not on the radio. It was the talk of the podcast, the piano duet with the Director of the Proms, and the being backstage ‘just catching people’ which sounded familiar.

No one has ownership of ideas, not really. But when you start remembering that you’d done strangely similar things like that in the past (with a different Proms Director), pitched ideas for podcasts (about six or seven years ago), and produced podcasts with the same spirit of serendipity in mind, an unwelcome feeling starts to crawl all over you. It’s a feeling which can be summed up in an exclamation: That could have been me doing that.

This is all very presumptuous on my part and breathtakingly self-absorbed. I share it because of the way it triggered my thinking right at the end of the season. A seemingly innocent exchange between two presenters on a radio station reminds me of the stuff I’d done years ago, the reasons I’d done them (to get into broadcasting), and a telling reminder that for the most part I’d failed to achieve my ambitions.

The journey to the Royal Albert Hall trundled on slowly; at Waterloo East, heavy congestion at Charing Cross meant the train didn’t move for 15 minutes. Thoughts whirled around. Disappointment, embarrassment, and perhaps a little bit of annoyance too.

“Keep your eye on the prize,” said a pal who had succumbed to a text conversation on the matter with me. If only I actually knew what the prize was then I would at least be able to recognise when I’d won it. If you’re not clear on what you’re hunting then those inevitable moments of evaluation and reflection will always trigger sadness and regret.

Ambition is what fuels all of this. When it’s not realised it stares you in the face accusingly.

But when is ambition realised and at what point in our lives do we get to say: I’m happy, that’s done with, let’s move on?  In the event of the ambition never being realised, what do we do then?  What happens if the ambition is never satisfied? Am I danger of being that person who harps on about the past because of his out of control ambition? Am I in fact that person already?  And if I am, what the hell do I do to stop it? Can it even be stopped?

When I arrived at the Albert Hall I sat down in my seat and immediately recognised the man sat beside from a website I’d written for earlier in the summer. It was the first time we’d met in person. I struck up a conversation. In a few minutes the conversation had taken me out of myself and, importantly, done what Verbier has achieved for two consecutive years: it had shown me a world which exists beyond the BBC, beyond perceived career paths and ambitions.

As the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment walked on to stage, I was reminded of a world I felt more at home in – a place where those who write about classical music reside. That’s somewhere I’d like to spend more time.

On the whole Verdi’s setting is grandiose and bombastic, but in those moments where we hear a stripped back score and simplicity reigns, the music gives us something we can better connect with. Conductor Marin Alsop had at her disposal the quite remarkable BBC Proms Youth Choir, clearly adept at great articulation and stunning pianissimos. The opening Requiem aeternam was a stunning demonstration.  Similarly, the quieter duets and quartets, especially those underpinned with a meandering bassoon line reached places I never thought were possible with Verdi.

A lot of that is down to Marin Alsop. Her detailed conducting style is underpinned with great stamina and warmth, and the results could clearly be heard in this performance. The self-imposed break half-way through before the Offertory saw the atmosphere drop (it’s even more marked in the radio broadcast). As a result, the ensemble had to work harder during the Domine Jesu Christe and the Sanctus to regain what we’d experienced before. But come the transcendent  Agnus Dei the magic had returned.

This was a fitting conclusion to the season, one which the audience repeatedly demanded soloists and conductor return to the stage to receive enthusiastic applause for.

*My response is: if you’re faced with two options and you don’t know which one to take, choose the one which instinctively feels the hardest – the outcome will be more rewarding.

**The actual Last Night isn’t representative of the rest of the season. The event invariably attracts an entirely different crowd to the Albert Hall. Consequently, an unofficial tradition has established itself around the penultimate night, now regarded as the season’s ‘Proper’ Last Night.

OAE Night Shift, Kings Place, January 2016

Monteverdi at the Night Shift

Last night I performed some presenting duties at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift concert at King’s Place.

Night Shift concerts, and their younger siblings Mini Night Shifts, are special affairs where people of all ages sit, stand or lounge, some with a drink in their hand, listening to an hour of music interspersed with a bit of chat. It is the most gloriously simple transaction. The concerts have been staged for at least six years and they’re still going strong. The crowds still keep coming for these beautifully intimate events (last night’s late night gig was attended by 120). This isn’t a fad.

On being a presenter

Presenting is a strange affair. I first had a stab at it in 2011. My confidence has improved, but I still recognise many of the observations I made after my first attempt in 2011.

As presenter, you’re not necessarily called upon to be the expert, but your primary role is to link between music, getting the performers to share their expert knowledge. They are the ones with the years of professional experience, the ones who have immersed themselves in their chosen field and the ones for whom waxing lyrical about the music they’re playing shouldn’t be that much of a tall order.

So, on that basis, the presenter shouldn’t really need to know anything. And if they do, they need to back off a bit. It’s not their moment. Presenter are not there for their knowledge. Presenters are on stage to keep things moving along.

Respect the players

To a certain extent, that’s all true. But if you’re standing on stage in the presence of professionals who have honed their skills over many many years and know far more than I do, preparing yourself (at the very least so you can avoid spluttering howlers) would be, at least, the respectful thing to do.

So I did just that. Did a bit of reading around about Monteverdi, listened to some archived radio programmes about Cavalli and drew up a playlist of repertoire, all to get me in the zone. The process was a bit like cramming for an exam, but it helped establish rapport with those performers and director Robert Howarth.

Once proceedings had got underway, the 45 minute concert followed a natural course. General introductions – a reasonably well-executed plan to make the audience feel welcome – followed by chit chat with director and the other musicians. All of this did, on the whole, see me asking the questions I was interested in and, I hope, questions I thought the audience might interested in too. A little bit of  a laugh in places – notably poking gentle fun at a musician who seemed unable to keep his music on his stand – and before I knew it, the gig was over. All too short.

I love the experience. I love the fact that it can at first seem incredibly daunting, respect the fact that I will feel slightly nauseous just before things get underway, and will delight in those magic unrehearsed moments will yield an insight or generate some laughter. All of that happened. Yay.

But, looking back on it twenty-four hours later, some other thoughts spring to mind. A mix of marketing considerations, and thoughts about audience consumption. All of what follows is considered in the context of the wider classical music world, not inside the bubble of or in reaction to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Obscure names put people off

Sometimes, seemingly obscure composers or terminology can, in a very low-level way, scare people off. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. At the same time, we shouldn’t start from the assumption that the audience doesn’t have the capacity or the desire to learn new stuff. As a classical music fan I know when I’ve had my fill or when I’m losing the plot a bit. I want the thing I love to be an immersive all encompassing experience for everyone.

At the same time, the classical music industry is obsessed by context. As listeners or consumers the first question we ask ourselves is ‘what period is this music from?’ and then make an assessment as to what the likelihood is we’ll like it. If I’m listening to pop music, I’ll never ponder what decade its from before I start listening. Why should classical music be any different?

Adopt a different listening strategy

When you take adopt a deliberately opposite listening strategy for new or unfamiliar music, then the result can be incredibly rewarding. Monteverdi’s music (in particular, that which I was introduced to as a result of this concert) has an indescribable effect on me at an emotional level.

When we chatted before the concert, Robert went some way to reflect that when he explained how he felt when he was first introduced to Monteverdi’s music. There is a physical sensation linked to the emotional response which is as unusual as it is difficult to describe. I experienced it during the OAE’s rehearsals earlier in the evening, especially when the voices started to sing. There is a quality to the tone which is refreshing and nourishing. And I defy anyone to not feel nourished by the sound of a glorious amen, Monteverdi-style. It makes no difference to me when that music was written. Should it really matter to anyone else?

Live performance is where its at

But perhaps most powerfully for me was the reminder that even the best recordings of music don’t convey the magic of the composer’s art. Like no other I’ve listened to, Monteverdi commitment to making his music inhabit the text he’s using (rather than the other way around) gives a remarkable authenticity to the finished product. Regardless of whether you understand what’s being sung or not, you are hearing the human soul when you hear voices sing Monteverdi’s music. That is the only way I can describe what was for me, a revelation. The only way to experience that is with an open mind at a live performance.

But you’d probably benefit from something equally potent if you’re being introduced to classical music for the first time. You need someone who has passion and who can communicate that passion (as opposed to a string of dull facts about a composer – that’s different and that’s valueless). I reckoned I saw an illustration of joy Monteverdi’s music offers in the face of Robert Howarth both before and during the concert. If you’re going to be introduced to something, have a passionate advocate do it for you. If the music resonates then it will stay with you forever.

Not only that, I reckoned I saw it reflected in the faces of the audience last night (only a presenter really gets to stare at the audience during a concert – the musicians and the conductor certainly can’t, or shouldn’t). Everyone was fixed on the platform during the performances. And as a fan of classical music there is no greater sight in an auditorium than seeing an audience transfixed.

Will Norris announced as new Managing Director of Canada’s Tafelmusik

Lots of commentators rush to congratulate when new appointments are announced, peppering their prose with words like ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ just to give their copy added (and usually unnecessary) urgency.

I’m going to precisely the opposite about the news that Marketing and Comms Director at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Will Norris will be taking a new position as Managing Director at Canada’s Tafelmusic Baroque Music and Chamber Choir.

It should come as no surprise at all that Will has this appointment. The first time I met him (and interviewed him for a film I was making for the BBC Proms website), I was struck by his refreshing spirit, savvyness and energy. Unfailingly down to earth with a wry sense of humour, the classical music world needs to continue nurturing this kind of talent. Will’s vision is reflected in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s distinctive marketing message: not all orchestras are the same and the associated print, photography and multimedia content which arose from that message.

My digital back-slapping can’t overlook the fact that a few years ago he looked past past my apparent inability and lack of ease at on-stage presenting, and gave me the chance to be compere at the ‘Mini Night Shift’ gigs the orchestra had developed. The concerts were successful despite my involvement (as you’d expect given that the players are so passionate about the music they play in pubs across London).

Will’s appointment to Tafelmusik has been hard-earned and well-deserved. Canada’s baroque orchestra and chorus are lucky to have such a talent joining them.

Selected concerts from the 2015 Bristol Proms

The summer is lining up rather nicely. My travel plans for Verbier are confirmed, tickets too are in the bag (I’m just waiting on my interview requests). And today, I’m reminded of one or two concerts in the Bristol Proms I wouldn’t mind getting along to.

This is the third year of the Bristol Proms. I like it’s steadfast out-of-London ballsiness. There’s an appealing unfussiness about it too. Its events tell the stories about music it spotlights and, in some cases, it uses flashy light displays to enhance what we’re listening to.

And, more than anything else, the Bristol Proms 2015 features the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment Night Shift on a Pub Crawl. I would so like to have been presenting that gig.

Some personal highlights worth booking tickets for:

Sacconi Quartet: Beethoven Opus No. 131 
A concert performed in (near) darkness. The Sacconi Quartet performs Beethoven’s dramatic String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131 from memory in the dark. Keep your hands to yourself, sir, if you’d be so kind.
Bristol Old Vic Studio, Monday 27 July, 6.45pm

Pure Minimalist Baroque: Mari and Hakon Samuelsen with Sinfonia Cymru
Bach plus Philip Glass plus the music of Giovanni Sollima . Nice.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 29 July, 7.30pm

Heartfelt: Sacconi Quartet Digital Performance
Listen, see and touch an interactive performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. Yes, more Beethoven.  Heartfelt sees the Sacconi Quartet work with robotics designers Rusty Squid and interactive lighting designer Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn, combining live musical performance with robotics and responsive lighting. Form an orderly queue. I’m before you.
Bristol Old Vic Studio, Thursday 30 July,  6pm

The OAE Night Shift in Bristol
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Bristol Proms Pub Crawl ends up at the Bristol Old Vic Paintshop. I don’t imagine for a moment that any of the players will drink booze during their gigs, but they will expect that you do. Night Shift gigs are special. This is a biassed view. I urge you to attend.
Bristol Old Vic Paintshop, Thursday 30 July, 9.45pm

Songs of Hope: In 40 Voices
Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium has inspired The Erebus Ensemble to make use of the acoustics of Bristol Old Vic’s auditorium to present a surround-sound performance.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Saturday 1 August, 7.30pm

Classic FM will be broadcasting live from the Bristol Proms (27 July – 1 August 2015). Buy tickets for the concerts on the Bristol Old Vic website.