Review: Raoul Barbe Bleue

A co-production between Versailles Baroque Musique Centre and the Baroque Early Music Festival in Trondheim, of Andre Gretry’s/Sedaine opera-comique setting of Perrault’s telling of the Bluebeard fairy tale.

Charming entertainment unconstrained by painstaking reconstruction, employing modern-day cultural references to give a moralistic tale a present-day context.

For the curious, it threw light on an otherwise unfamiliar composer. For the newcomer, in particular, it provided a signpost for further exploration of a period in art that goes unmentioned in most conventional music histories.

Throughout Raoul Barbe Bleue, Gretry’s writing is rooted in instantly likable melody, underpinned by a vaguely familiar Mozartian style. Unsurprising perhaps: Mozart listened to many of Gretry’s works during the European tour his father mounted for him.  That a lot of Gretry’s work pre-dates Mozart means the French composer demands more recognition than perhaps he’s hitherto received.

So as a musicological anomaly, this staging of a relatively unknown Gretry opera was an appealing proposition.

The production wasn’t entirely without its flaws. Some disconnection between orchestra and voices was evident in the faster sections of the opening act, though the ensemble between the two leads tightened up at the beginning of the second. This was when the energy ramped up a little more, especially in the duets between Madame Isaure’s lover Vergi at Bluebeard’s castle disguised in bright red Mary Poppins-esque garb complete with high-heel boots and brolly. Rapport was solid and precision clearer. Chantal Santon-Jeffery conveyed moments of tenderness with a warm rich voice and a commanding presence on stage.

 

 

Some initially jarring elements of direction became less of an issue once I became more accustomed to them. The two comedy knights who walked stiffly in plastic armor with a whiff of Monty Python’s Holy Grail about them seemed like an ambitious piece of direction which didn’t quite succeed in execution initially. But, within the context of the production, there was a lovable quality to their interactions with one another that created lasting endearing characters.

This like one or two technical issues with lighting spots and set moves during the second and third act were initially disappointing, but importantly posed inevitable questions that mirror present-day expectations.

Should we expect a work which probably wasn’t originally staged with high production values to be performed with high production values today? Do the works of light opera necessarily need big budgets and high expectations to deliver the spirit of the original intent? Are moments when things are a little rough around the edges all part of the spirit of the piece even if they’re not intended?

Paramount is the delivery of the message. Similarly, attention needs to be maintained and punters entertained.

This production remained true to the show’s roots, playing to the intimate interior of Trondheim Theatre’s strengths. Raoul Barbe Bleue delivered on entertainment too.

 

Matthieu Lecroart gave us a tragic and momentarily forgivable Raoul with a hunch back, long pointy nose and terrifying stare. And whilst Chantal Santon-Jeffery as Isaure and Francois Rougier as Vergi led the company with conviction, the powerhouse performance undoubtedly came from Manuel Nunez-Camelino who’s energy in movement and dialogue was impressive. Also included, a spot of old-fashioned vaudeville magic.

Special note to the second and third act set design – Alice in Wonderland with lopsided doorways and a delightfully over-sized key – and to Raoul and his henchmen’s costumes and make-up. An enjoyable performance that helped introduce an unfamiliar composer and his canon.

Pictures: Leikny Havik Skjærseth

Review: Fire On All Sides / James Rhodes

James Rhodes latest release on Instrumental Records International is a lovingly curated sequence of fiercely intense performances. The gratifyingly unfussy pianist has concocted a treat that demands listening from beginning to end uninterrupted.

I am at risk of sounding like a fanboy. That would never do. Anyone who leaves their objectivity behind will be sneered upon so the writing guidelines state.

But with Rhodes’ Fire On All Sides its difficult not to do anything else. His 2016 recital tour programme of Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff is electrifying stuff.

Much of this enthusiasm is I wonder down to the autobiography he released a couple of years back. Instrumental gave us the pianist in all his vulnerability, positioning his musical talent as a miraculous product of his mental suffering.

Well no. The music is part of that suffering – part of the healing process. Read Instrumental and discover the passion he has for his art. Then listen to any recording of him play. It’s impossible to separate James Rhodes’ personal story from the music he’s playing. Perhaps reconciling the two is the answer instead.

By doing so, there’s an unequivocal and irresistible authenticity to his performances. And perhaps its that which creates the necessary link between audience and performer when listening back to a recording.

Because that’s what happens here. That’s what has happened every time I’ve listened to Fire On All Sides in its entirety, all in one go. It’s as though I’m there in the Britten Studio in Snape where it was recorded, in the space feeling the emotion as the music is played.

The prompt efficient storytelling of the first prelude in the ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ prepares us for an exquisite rapid fire range of modulations in Chopin’s monumental F Minor Fantasie – what at times feels like passport to an intensely intimate and self-reflective domain.

The subsequent Chopin Polonaise felt more difficult to get absorbed in, but the comparatively easier melodic material in Beethoven’s A Flat Major Sonata No.31 made the personalities James Rhodes commanded at the keyboard more easily discernible.

After a fierce allegro molto the pianist demonstrates remarkable facility to extrude the raw beauty from Beethoven’s melodic material in the final movement adagio ma non troppo. The harmonic transitions in the run-up to the recapitulation in the allegro ma non troppo are delicious.

Later, Rachmaninoff’s E Flat Minor Etude has an unwavering human focus to it that makes the work a hypnotic.

Come the final release in Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of O mio babbino caro tears start to flow. Little wonder. James Rhodes is a a remarkable communicator, one who wants his audience to love the music he does.

There is a tiny rub. Inside the CD cover, one sentence sets the whole thing to self-destruct. In explaining the link between the CD and the book he’s written about the tour he embarked on in 2016 he says, “Like every other area of my life, it’s heavily based on fantasy.”

It raises a tantalising question for me. Have I been hoodwinked by him? Is this self-deprecation, subversion, or a defensive technique? Is he laughing at me when he says that? Or is he keeping me and countless others at arms length, protecting himself from feedback he thinks he wouldn’t be able to process.

Maybe that in itself is his James Rhodes’ intention, to focus attention on what matters most: the music.

The answer, of course, is to read the book – billed by Instrumental Records as “an intimate exploration of what it’s like to be a celebrated pianist embarking on a world tour, when you have multiple voices jostling in your head, sabotaging your happiness and sapping your confidence.”

Right now I’m approaching the book with trepidation. I don’t want anything to damage this quite unexpected listening experience.

  • Fire On All Sides‘ is released on Friday 12 January 2018
  • The book ‘Fire On All Sides’ is released on Thursday 11 January 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon

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What happened Friday night: Me, Simon, and Leif Oves Andsnes

I asked Simon (the Other Half of 20 years, for those unaware who he is) whether he’d read my post telling the story of how he and I met on a blind date.

“I never read your blog,” he said without missing a beat. “Reading your blog would be like me rifling through your mum’s handbag.”

Disappointing, I thought. First no flowers. No card. Now this.

So, I opened the post on my iPad and got him to read it.

I didn’t really expect him to snivel at the end. I didn’t expect to snivel in sympathy either.

A special moment. The kind of reaction flowers were never going to trigger.

By and large, Friday nights follow a set routine. Get home. Clear up. Clean sheets on the bed. Open a bottle of cheap cava. Settle down on the sofa.

It’s Friday nights when we listen to music. Of late we’ve listen to too little. But, this Friday night I wanted Simon to listen to Leif Oves Andsnes’s recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic (find it on the latest Thoroughly Good Spotify Playlist).

It’s a surprisingly new discovery (given that the recording was released in 2012) but it does come with a cast-iron guarantee.

I first heard it a week last Friday, the morning after the Philharmonia’s gig with Tchaikovsky Competition silver medal winner George Li playing the Rachmaninov concert. Close in to the band I heard all sorts of different things I’d not heard before. A real treat.

The morning after, a painter, a plumber, and a carpenter occupied our lounge doing their work, whilst I sat upstairs in the office listening to the slow movement through a portable bluetooth speaker, snivelling uncontrollably at ten o’clock in the morning dressed in my pyjamas. There was something in this recording – I don’t normallh cry in my pyjamas.

Suitably spurred on, I tried to play the slow movement to Simon the same night but (forgive the achingly middle-class detail here), Bento’s delivery service arrived a good deal earlier than either of us had anticipated. We’d started but we never finished. Quite disappointing.

So I tried again Friday night just gone. “Listen to the melody when it comes back towards the end of the second movement,” I explained to Simon, conscious I might be trampling on a moment of discovery for him, “it’s the strings that turn me into a thick sauce.”

I wasn’t wrong. They sounded even better on the JBL 4410s in the living room. A sort of delicate hard-fought aching quality that summed up all the yearning any human being could possibly bear and then some.

There were other delights I hadn’t heard in this recording before now. There’s a leanness to the sound – I can hear both a large scale symphony orchestra and a string quartet all at the same time. That means the entire thing lacks the usual syrupy-ness. A leaner more sinewy sound reveals the complexities of the orchestral accompaniment – the aural equivalent of having a chance to look under the bonnet.

The first movement is prompt, keeping sentimentality at bay, with a tight fluid conclusion that’s gratifyingly barky and growly.

The beginning of the third movement provides much-needed mischievousness to the heartache of what went before. And it’s tight, oh so very tight, which, because of that intimate sound, makes everything feel all the more visceral.

The return of the main theme at the end lacks the usual self-indulgence. We all of us head towards to a swift but well-deserved triumphant conclusion.

Simon was converted. I suddenly wanted to discover more by the pianist. Fortunately there’s a lot to get through, including a 2017release of solo works by Sibelius. Tantalising.

Leif Oves Andsnes has two new fanboys.

 

Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Messiaen’s ‘Poemes pour Mi’ and ‘3 Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine’

Poemes pour Mi is the better of the two performances on Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s latest recording, released on 18 August 2017.

Written originally for piano and soprano and scored for orchestra and voice the following year, Poemes are exuberant and colourful settings of Messiaen’s own poetry exploring marital love, the experience of which was in no doubt informed by his marriage to violinist and composer Claire Delbos in June 1932.

That Delbos would go on to suffer multiple miscarriages and succumb to memory loss and live her life in a mental insitution after an operation, makes Poemes pour Mi a bittersweet listen.

In the Seattle Symphony recording, conductor Ludovic Morlot is efficient with his speeds, taking things at a swift pace from the start of the first song. In this way, Morlot’s work is reminiscent of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Renee Fleming’s interpretation.

Where Morlot’s interpretation differs is the way in which the recording puts voice, wind, and percussion front and centre, casting the strings further back in the mix. This gives Seattle’s resulting spartan sound a hungrier more responsive feel. I think it works too.

In comparison, Boulez’s lusher sound generated by Cleveland Orchestra string section on the Deutsche Grammophon release from 1997, feels a lot heavier – in places a slightly more cumbersome. My preference is for the more agile sound Seattle have come up with.

That strategy pays off to a certain extent in the other work in the release – 3 Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine. There is a shimmering quality to the sound in places which gives this three movement vocal work an eerily alluring feel to it.

At times however there are places where the use of a boys choir over the women’s voices originally scored by Messiaen let’s the recording down a bit. In the high registers, usually at the ends of phrases, the intonation wavers a little.

Download details available via the Seattle Symphony Orchestra website.

 

Theatre: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Mendes

The West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory pays homage to the first screenplay of Roald Dahl’s perennial children’s favourite and insodoing makes up for the second more disappointing film starring Johnny Depp.

Clearly, the stage show wants (and probably had to be) distinctive, hence why all but one of the songs original soundtrack has been replaced. They’re not especially memorable (except for a beguiling ballad between Charlie and his parents) but they are full of insistent and infectious energy set at just the right speed to get your toe-tapping and a smile stretching across your face.

The stage show remains faithful to the book in its narrative and characterisation: Veruca Salt falls prey to oversized terrifying squirrels who identify her as a bad nut. There are no fizzy lifting drinks for Charlie and Grandpa Joe to fall prey to, but Mike Teeve’s weakness for the flakily-built Wonka TV is as much a spectacle guaranteed to please the younger kids just as it is still remains a potent present-day figurative reference to ADHD.

Gorgeous sets, a fantastically dark and playful Wonka and the tightest pit band I’ve heard in a long time.