Opening the Boxes Time change!

The above Radio 4 programme this coming Thursday 18th August is being broadcast at 11.30am and not at 1.30pm as previously mentioned. I hope that you can catch it.

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RADIO 4 DOCUMENTARY ON JENNIFER VYVYAN: OPENING THE BOXES, TUESDAY AUGUST 18TH, 1.30PM

When Jennifer Vyvyan died in 1974 she left behind a husband, a small son and an awful lot of stuff – which was put in boxes and stored in a loft for almost 40 years until it was re-examined and turned into the material for this website.

Opening the Boxes is a reflection on how all this happened. Presented by the music critic Michael White, who did the research and wrote the site, it features contributions from conductor Steuart Bedford, stage director John Copley, soprano April Cantelo, and JV’s son Jonathan Crown. Do please listen in.

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Winding Up!

Well we’ve tried hard to build a following on this Blog, but I think I have to admit failure! There will be few updates from now on here. You can though follow Michael White on his own lively Telegraph Blog here http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/michael_white

Please do also follow news on the Jennifer Vyvyan Facebook page which I will be updating regularly www.facebook.com/pages/Jennifer-Vyvyan/135388839853972

Thanks, Jonathan Crown

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A new Dream opening at the Coliseum

Britten and Vyvyan, backstage at A Midsummer Night's Dream

A new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens later this week at ENO, directed by Christopher Alden with a cast led by Anna Christy (who took the title role in ENO’s recent Lucia di Lammermoor) as Tytania and the very wonderful Iestyn Davies (certainly the finest British countertenor around, although he’ll have to work hard not to be mistaken for Puck) as Oberon. There’s also Willard White as Bottom. And all in all, it looks like being a hot-ticket show: there are ten performances, running May 19 to June 25.

It’s strange, though, to think of this piece playing on such a vast stage as the Coliseum, given that it premiered, June 1960, in the cramped, unprepossessing circumstances of Aldeburgh’s seafront Jubilee Hall. Tytania, then, was sung by Jennifer Vyvyan; and indeed the role had been conceived specifically for her. ‘I can hear your voice in every note I’ve written so far’, declared the composer in a letter to her from the previous autumn. And it’s likely that the ‘y’s in her name prompted Britten to adopt the archaic spelling of Tytania rather than Titania as he originally had it.

Details of Vyvyan’s involvement with the Dream and its subsequent performance history are given in the relevant chapters of this website (see The Britten Connection, Biography and Repertoire). It’s the Dream above all that charts her up and down relationship with Britten as she disappeared from the cast when it transferred to Covent Garden and onto disc but was then reinstated a few years later when it toured to Brussels, San Francisco and other UK venues.

All of them, of course, were bigger than the Jubilee Hall. But there would have been one serious advantage in that little place: it’s small enough to have ensured that everybody heard the boys who sing the fairies. Larger venues make it difficult, which is one reason why latterday productions often replace them with young women.

I don’t know what the plan is for the Coliseum. But I do, on principle, think rough-voiced boys (Britten was adamant they shouldn’t have cathedral sound) are preferable. So long as they project!

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Charles Mackerras makes a last stand at ENO

charles mackerras - in the old days

Sir Charles Mackerras didn’t have the happiest of times as ENO’s music director – in charge from 1970 to 77 – but time heals most wounds, and he was happy enough to go back and conduct there as a guest in later years. So, a year after his death, the Coliseum is staging a grand gala night to remember him. Fondly.

It will be on 26 June at 7pm and feature some of ENO’s most illustrious stars like John Tomlinson, Felicity Palmer and Yvonne Kenny, alongside a cavalcade of music directors past and present: Edward Gardner, Mark Elder, and Paul Daniel.

The repertoire will, reasonably enough, reflect Mackerras’s interests: Mozart, Handel, Janacek, Gilbert & Sullivan…and of course some Britten.

Proceeds will go to the ENO Benevolent Fund.

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The Bavarian cultural retreat where Pears and Britten used to go – still functioning, and still extraordinary

Schloss Elmau

From the 1950s through to the 1970s Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears used to visit a place called Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian alps, an hour’s fast drive from Munich; and they went there, as musicians still do, partly to play, partly to experience an extraordinary set-up that has not unfairly been described as a ‘moral sanatorium’.

Established at the time of the 1st World War, it was the creation of a maverick Lutheran theologian, Johannes Muller, who broke away from the church and became a celebrated thinker, guru, spiritual guide, teaching that the way to God was not through institutions but through the surrender of the self in art and nature. Elmau, situated in a vast, green, empty valley fringed by snow-capped mountains with jaw-dropping views in all directions, was a natural place for this self-less experience of God to happen. And to encourage it, he also made the schloss a home for cultural and literary activity.

Musicians like the pianist Wilhlem Kempff would be in residence alongside politicians, writers and philosophers. There would be regular concerts, of a somewhat stern sort with no applause (because they were supposedly devotional encounters rather than mere entertainments). And because Muller believed music should be a participatory rather than passive exercise, the audience was expected to dance to the music. Not just sit and listen. Sehr Deutsch.

By the 1950s, after wartime distractions, the music programme had grown into something of substance that pulled in big names. Menuhin went to Elmau, So did the Amadeus Quartet, Emil Gilels, George Malcolm, Julian Bream…And so, in 1959, did Britten and Pears for the founding of what was called a British-German Chamber Music Festival that ran for a week in January.

Despite what Pears described as a ‘loathsome-ish piano’ they liked the Schloss enough to go back several times; and in 1974 they premiered Britten’s 5th canticle, The Death of St Narcissus, in the Schloss’s concert hall.

In 2005 the Schloss burned down but was rebuilt by Muller’s grandson on much the same terms as before albeit with 5-star indulgences. It’s now a luxury hotel and spa that functions like a discreetly upmarket holiday camp for affluent Germans and their children (of whom there are many although being German, middle-class and well-brought-up, they’re so polite and civilised you barely notice them).

But at the same time, it maintains its old identity as a high-minded cultural retreat: a place for international intelligentsia to meet, talk, think. And it’s still very much a retreat for musicians who go there to chill out, take some mountain air, and (in return) play concerts for the other guests.

Schloss Elmau presents around 200 concerts a year. They happen in relatively intimate circumstances, without fuss or fanfares. But they feature some of the biggest names in the business – Ian Bostridge, Martha Argerich, Thomas Quasthoff, Herman Prey, Gidon Kremer, Vadim Repin, Lief Ove Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida…name a name and they’ll probably have been to Elmau. Quietly. With reverence.

Having been there myself last week, I can understand the attraction. It’s one of the most magically beautiful locations I’ve ever witnessed. And the combination of the scenery, the spa, the comfort, the food (there’s a Michelin-starred chef), and a super-chic recital every night (a piano series running at the moment with the likes of Nelson Goerner and the hot young American Nicholas Angelich) is heaven on a plate.

Not everyone in Britain knows about Schloss Elmau, but it’s time they did. There’s nothing like it here – we don’t do moral sanatoria, or alpine pastures, or (I’m sad to say) polite, well-brought-up children. And if any of this sounds as good to you as it was for me, look up the website: www.schloss-elmau.de

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Antony Hopkins at 90

Antony Hopkins

Jennifer Vyvyan had a wide-ranging but actually rather specific repertoire: there were standard things she didn’t do, but non-standard ones she did all the time. And among the non-standards was a piece by Antony Hopkins (the musicologist not the actor) called A Melancholy Song that surfaced time and time again in her recitals as an almost constant presence.

Hopkins has just turned 90 and, though fragile, still in business – which for most of his life has focused not so much on composing music as on talking about it. There was a time when he was one of the most prominent voices on radio, with a programme called Talking about Music that I have to admit was central to my childhood and, along with the local library, the source of what little music education I got (because there was damn all at school).

It also happened that when I started talking about music myself – in print – one of my first ever pieces was an interview with Hopkins in the Observer Magazine. For which I was very proud that the celebrated Jane Bown took the accompanying portrait photo.

There was a more up to date interview with Hopkins recently in Classical Music Magazine in which he recalls his early days as a lecturer at the Royal College, explaining mischievously that he learned how NOT to talk about music from the example of Frank Howes – who at that point was chief critic on the Times.

Howes’ lectures, says Hopkins, ‘were the dullest, wordiest nonsense. The man had all the knowledge in the world, infinitely superior to mine, but he lacked the imagination to put it across. This was quite typical then.

‘I’ve always maintained that my ability to communicate was helped by the fact that I didn’t have a long scholarly training. When people use jargon they frighten their audience. I would usually look for analogy rather than analysis’.

If you’ve never heard or read any Antony Hopkins, the publisher Travis & Emery is  re-issuing some of his books. My memory of them is that they’re substantial, stylish and extremely readable. Full details: www.travis-and-emery.com.

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A bubble-wrapped vision of heaven in Hampstead Garden Opera’s new Semele

One of Jennifer Vyvyan’s most notable Handel recordings was a Semele made for L’Oiseau Lyre in 1955 at a time when the score was unknown beyond the world of scholarship. First performed in 1744, Semele vanished from performance until a Cambridge student show in 1925, and there was no professional staging in modern times until a 1959 Sadlers Wells production. So JV’s recording can be said to have been instrumental in bringing the piece back into public awareness.

It’s also a reminder of how fearsomely difficult the coloratura writing for the title role becomes in the closing act; and it was certainly a challenge for the young soprano I heard singing it last night – in a modest, pub-theatre production running in Highgate, north London done by the semi-pro Hampstead Garden Opera.

But HGO’s Semele isn’t bad. The soprano in question, Robyn Parton (currently a postgrad at the RCM) had a warm sound and in fact handled most of her gymnastic requirements with cool accomplishment: give her another few years of hard technical graft and she’ll be worth hearing on a larger stage.

Her Jove, Edmund Hastings, played the king of the gods as a teen-idol heart-throb: silent, sultry but sensitive. And when he wasn’t silent (the production kept him onstage for long periods without anything to do or sing) the voice was seriously attractive, albeit in the English Oxbridge choral-scholar way of light, thin tone. A postgrad at the RAM, he’s already established on the oratorio circuit and I suspect that’s where his future lies. With more work on his articulation – the coloratura was loose – I could hear him as a future Evangelist in a Bach Passion.

Three other young voices stood out: Daisy Brown as Iris, Tom Verney as Athamas, and a wonderfully open, free (though as yet undeveloped) bass from Bartholomew Lawrence as Somnus.

Drawbacks: the pace was slow, musically and dramatically, with the longeur of a pointless dumb-show at the very start. And for such a modest staging it got entangled in its own attempts to be radical and edgy. Playing the royal family of Thebes like the Royle family of British television, congenitally gathered round the box on a sofa, was cute; but the idea of heaven as a kingdom of bubble wrap was tacky. And having Semele smothered to death with a pillow rather than scorched by the magnificence of Jove’s revealed presence skewed the ending. Jove may be a serial filanderer but he’s not a homicidal psychopath. At least, not in this opera.

That said, you don’t get very many chances to see a Semele on stage; so if the idea of this one interests you, don’t hold back. It continues April 13-16 at 7.30pm and April 17, 4pm at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village. Details: www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

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Opera in Northern Ireland – struggling but back in business

Londonderry's protestant cathedral

If things look bad for opera in England – with Arts Council cuts, withdrawal of local authority support, and disappearing sponsors – there’s some small crumb of comfort to be got by looking over the water to Ireland where things are even worse.

In the economically devastated south, there’s a state of chaotic suspension with little happening except for the Wexford Festival in late autumn. Opera in Dublin seems to have completely collapsed.

In the north, there’s been a radical contraction of already limited forces. Opera Northern Ireland in Belfast went out of business years ago. Castle Ward Opera – a small, semi-pro country house festival in the summer – has gone. And so has the small, edgy but very part-time Opera Fringe in Downpatrick.

The only good news is that some remnant of all these northern companies has been absorbed into a new organisation called NI Opera that launched last year with £450,000 of public funding and has just staged its first major production.

Significantly, it wasn’t in Belfast but in Londonderry, because NI Opera has a mission to be regional rather than metro-centric. And the choice of Londonderry had not a little to do with politics. As the historic focus of sectarian conflict in the north, Derry (the town goes under two names, dependent on your religious allegiance) is also a continuing focus for peace initiatives and public spending. In 2013 it acquires the title UK City of Culture. And it’s starting to position itself in readiness for what it hopes will be a new kind of profile – no longer related to riots, bombs and bloodshed but to arts initiatives.

This NI Opera debut was in some ways a preparatory exercise for 2013, and an ambitious one. OK, it was standard repertory, a Tosca. But it was done in a non-standard way, as an itinerant production with each act in a different venue and the audience, singers and orchestra marshalled from place to place during the intervals.

It wasn’t a completely new idea: itinerant opera has been done before, and there was once a famous broadcast Tosca that played in real time from the ‘actual’ Roman locations. But for obvious reasons, it doesn’t happen often and tends to be accident-prone when it does. I recall plans for a mega-Carmen that would have shifted thousands of people around the streets of Seville except it proved impracticable and was cancelled. Attempting such a thing is brave. It requires the logistical planning of a full-scale military operation. And no less, it requires successive venues interesting enough to justify the effort.

For NI Opera’s show, two of the three venues were stunning. Act I happened in Derry’s protestant cathedral which, for the purpose, was temporarily transformed into a Roman basilica complete with Marian statuary, wreathed in flowers, and processions of biretta’d clergy, wreathed in incense (a peace gesture in its own right that couldn’t have happened ten years ago).

For Act II, Derry’s exuberant neo-renaissance Guildhall became Palazzo Farnese. And the only disappointment was that in a walled city with plenty of spectacular possibilities for Tosca’s terminal jump, Act III took place in a conventional auditorium with a proscenium stage and enclosed-room set – which meant she had to open a conveniently unlocked window and leap into a painted backdrop.

The big surprise of the show, though, was the standard of singing – which was far higher than I’d expected. For obvious reasons, the company had taken pains to cast a Northern Irish soprano in the title role; and although Giselle Allen had a slightly hard edge to her tone she was tempestuously alive: in every sense a strong vocal personality that projected well and carried conviction.

I wasn’t so thrilled by her Cavaradossi, the Mexican Jesus Leon. But Paul Carey Jones made an incisive, sharply observed Scarpia; John Molloy a fulsome Angelotti; and Andrew Rees (who shone recently as the oily breast-enhancement surgeon in Covent Garden’s Anna Nicole) delivered another curiously memorable cameo as Spoletta – a role you sometimes barely notice but done here with striking detail as an eager-to-please subaltern who likes his job too much.

Why Oliver Mears, the stage director, set everything in what I assume from Cavaradossi’s flares and Tosca’s furs to have been the 1970s, is hard to know: the period didn’t particularly illuminate the narrative or bear any special relevance to it (unless we’d been transported to a police state in South American, which we clearly hadn’t). But there was firm, capable and unsentimental conducting from Nicholas Chalmers (assistant chorus master of ENO); and the pick-up band, drawn largely from the Ulster Orchestra, sounded surprisingly good in all three acoustics.

So, a good start for a new venture. NI Opera’s next production won’t be until September when it shares an Orpheus in the Underworld with Scottish Opera. And after that comes a Hansel and Gretel of its own in December – which means the company is taking its time to come together. But that’s no bad thing. If it can build on the promise of this initial Tosca, it will have something serious to offer Northern Ireland.

The only pity is that its contribution to the fostering of peaceable civility in Londonderry seems not to have been universally acknowledged. The morning after the Tosca opening, I went back to the cathedral where the company was setting up for the next performance. Or at least, they would have been, but for the fact that much of the surrounding area had been cordoned off by the police. Another bomb scare. It goes on.

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ENO’s Return of Ulysses – along with the return of several singers

Ruby Hughes and Pamela Helen Stephen. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s always good to find a show full of singers you’ve known and admired over the years but haven’t seen (or maybe noticed) for a while. And such a show, for me, is Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses currently playing in an ENO production at the Young Vic.

Staged by Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, it homes in on the historically abiding image of women who stay behind, waiting, while their men go off to war. Penelope – the queen of Ithaca who stays behind while Ulysses besieges Troy – becomes a contemporary figure, living alongside her suitors and servants in an interior-designed glass box like a penthouse show-flat whose transparent walls provide not only claustrophobic containment but total exposure. Most of the cast are visible most of the time. And as they go about their business the tension builds of a community in limbo, waiting for something to happen.

It’s a well-presented image, the glass box sharply lit as it revolves. And it becomes a scene of devastating carnage when when Ulysses does finally return, slaying the suitors in a bloodbath worthy of Sam Peckinpah. The warrior has brought the war back with him; and the reconciliation with his wife is cautious, awkward, suddenly erupting into sexual frenzy.

As a study in the loss and rediscovery of relationship, it’s powerfully observed, with outstanding performances from a cast that doesn’t always radiate period-specialist refinement but can certainly sing. And a fair number of the cast are singers I used to see all the time in leading roles for UK opera companies, but haven’t recently.

There’s Diana Montague (who plays the old nurse as a much put-open servant endlessly clearing up the royal household mess. Moral of this staging: people who live in glass boxes need round-the-clock window-cleaners), and Nigel Robson is handsomely shaggy as the old shepherd Eumaeus. Tom Randle is the living presence of a wary, war-toughened, understandably psychotic Ulysses forcing himself back into the business of normality after twenty years in uniform. And Pamela Helen Stephen is an inspired choice for Penelope, playing the role as a woman frozen in indecision, stifling her sexual need, and at the same time holding up magnificently under the constant, close-in exposure to which the show subjects her.

With fine support from younger voices like Katherine Manley as the erotically liberated servant Melanto, Thomas Hobbs as a vocally exquisite Telemaco, and Ruby Hughes as a high-profile Minerva, it’s a cast that doesn’t always radiate period-specialist refinement but can certainly sing.

Equally impressive is the small accompanying band of period instruments mixed with ENO string-players. Rich in texture, engagingly energised, it’s led from the harpsichord with a buoyant grasp of Monteverdi’s dancing rhythms by Jonathan Cohen: a conductor recently emerged out of the rank and file of period instrumentalists, and going places.

With such a strong show, it’s a shame there are only eight performances; but if you can catch one before they end on April 9th, do try. You won’t be disappointed. Shows start early, at 7pm. Booking details: www.youngvic.org

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