Peter Brook – in London for perhaps the last time

Peter Brook's A Magic Flute

Back in 1953 a still-young stage director made a film of The Beggar’s Opera with an extraordinary cast that ranged from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Williams. Most of them were dubbed for the singing sections. And among the unseen singers was Jennifer Vyvyan who provided the voice for Lucy Lockit (played on screen by Daphne Anderson).

As for the stage director, it was Peter Brook – who as it happened was the same age as Vyvyan, born 1925. But while Vyvyan’s life turned out to be short, Brook’s continued tirelessly and productively. He’s now 86. And his latest work has just arrived on tour at the Barbican Theatre: a Magic Flute originally made, like his previous Carmen and Pelleas, for the small-scale of his own little theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, Paris.

Significantly, both those previous productions changed the title of the opera: Carmen became The Tragedy of Carmen,  Pelleas became Impressions of Pelleas. His Flute does likewise: not The Magic Flute, it’s just A Magic Flute. And the message is that what you’ll see makes no pretence to be definitive and won’t in fact deliver everything you’re used to.

Radically reduced in every way, the non-delivery here includes the three ladies, the three boys, and the chorus – none of whom appear although some of their music gets re-allocated to other cast members. Two actors – rasta men with dreadlocks – fill the narrative gaps and necessary stage business of the missing roles. And with so much excised, the running time comes down to 90 minutes, without interval.

Needless to say, the show does largely without props and scenery, all of it kept to the barest minimum. And there’s no orchestra: just a solo pianist who accompanies with the muted, background deference you’d hear in a discreet, upmarket cocktail bar.

In fact, the whole show has this muted quality. The singing is soft to the point of marking – even the Queen of the Night keeps it down – and the theatrical style understated, sometimes underwhelming. I’ve never seen a less triumphalist finale: it just flickers and it’s gone, like a mirage that vanishes. This is the gentlest, least assertive and most delicate of theatre.

But with the delicacy comes refinement. Brook’s performers aren’t, in honesty, the greatest voices (it’s as well they’re not required to sing out: most of the ones I heard – there are two casts – wouldn’t survive the evening) but they’re subtle actors, thoroughly rehearsed. Exposed by stripped-down theatre, every move and gesture registers.

But while his general inclinations are reductivist – slimming down, taking away, focusing on essentials – he does also add things. For example, he finds an extra aria for Papagena (presumably to make the part more rounded and worthwhile) and has the pianist play Mozartian riffs to underscore the spoken dialogue.

I wasn’t sure about the Papagena aria, it felt intrusive and lasted too long. But the keyboard fantasies I did enjoy – especially as they were delivered with breath-taking subtlelty and finesse (albeit never more than mezzo-forte) by a pianist, Franck Krawczyk, I’d happily hear on his own in recital.

The pianist apart, I’d have to say this was a show more engaging for its theatre than its music: too many of the numbers were rhythmically mauled or simply under-sung. And even as theatre it didn’t tell the story with quite the clarity intended: when you excise so much, you have to make sure that the narrative connections still hold good. Occasionally they didn’t. But anything with Peter Brook’s name on it is worth seeing. And if it’s true that this is his last Bouffes du Nord show – which, at 86, is hardly surprising – it marks the end of a significant chapter in theatre history.

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Anna Nicole (the opera) hits your TV screens this Friday

If you didn’t make it to Mark Anthony Turnage’s new opera Anna Nicole at Covent Garden the other week – and for such a scandalous piece there were scandalously few performances – there’s a TV broadcast you might want to watch this coming Friday: BBC4 at 9pm.

It’s preceded by a 30-minute documentary in which the conductor Tony Pappano introduces the subject of fallen women in opera: the idea being that Nicole Smith as an operatic subject fits into a long tradition, traceable back through Carmen, Violetta (in La Traviata), Lulu and a host of others who sacrifice their lives to their passions.

If you’d care to know what I thought of the piece when it premiered, you could look up my review on the Telegraph website:
In short, I thought it entertaining, in the way of saucy seaside postcards, but wondered whether a major house like the Garden shouldn’t be setting it sights a touch higher than sauce.

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New Director for the Royal Opera

Kasper Holten

It was a long time ago that the Royal Opera announced the impending retirement of Elaine Padmore as its Director, and finding her successor clearly hasn’t been easy . With such a messy hierarchy in the House, it’s never been too obvious where the boundaries of her job fall. Her functions certainly appear to overlap with those of casting director Peter Katona and music director Tony Pappano – which can’t make life very comfortable and can only have made the job less than attractive to a lot of potentially well-qualified candidates.

But a successor has now been found, and he’s Kasper Holten, the 37 year-old former director of the Copenhagen Opera where, interestingly enough, he stepped into Padmore’s shoes on that occasion too.

Holten is a whizzkid stage director, responsible for Copenhagen’s hugely successful RING cycle which won awards when it issued on DVD; and whether he’ll be content to run the Royal Opera here without steering his own shows onto the stage in rapid succession remains to be seen. But he’s certainly dynamic and sounds like good news.

He’ll start in the autumn, at the beginning of next season.

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JV Scholarship winner in recital this weekend

Last year’s Jennifer Vyvyan scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music went to Kate Symonds-Joy, a mezzo on the opera course studying with Lillian Watson and Audrey Hyland.

Giving lie to the pernicious rumour sometimes circulated that singers have nothing between their ears, Kate took a first in music at Cambridge, arriving at the Academy as a postgrad; and since then she’s been turning up some notable appearances in student opera productions – as Dorabella in a Cosi directed by John Cox, Florence in Albert Herring directed by John Copley, and Ino in Semele under the late Charles Mackerras.

But it’s good to see her getting out and about beyond the Marylebone Road. There’s been a title role in Carmen for Kentish Opera, a Beethoven Missa Solemnis in Kings, Cambridge, a recital at the Wigmore as part of the RAM Song Circle, and a recording of Giles Swayne’s Stabat Mater for Naxos.

This Sunday night – 20th March – she appears in the second of the English Song Festival series running at The Forge, Camden Town: a chic little venue I’ve enthused about before on this website, in Delancey St, five minutes’ walk from Camden Town tube.

Attached to a cafe/restaurant and extremely comfortable, the recital room there is intimate but with a good, clear sound that works well for solo voices – as I can testify having been to the opening song-series concert last week.

The programme then was based on texts by Auden. The programme this coming Sunday, which Kate shares with baritone Samuel Evans and pianist William Vann, has settings of Shakespeare by Finzi (the inevitable Let Us Garlands Bring), Quilter, Ireland, Warlock and others – with Tippett’s Songs for Ariel as the main item in the second half.

This series is a truly admirable undertaking, smartly put together and hopefully re-establishing a presence for the themed, concert-party style song recital of the kind that Songmakers Almanac used to be in years gone by. The atmosphere of the series does in fact feel like Songmakers – although without the spoken introductions that Graham Johnson used to deliver with such erudition.

I’m not sure that William Vann, whose project this is, sees himself as a raconteur in quite that way. But maybe he should think about it. There’s always a back-story to song settings, and to give it adds dimension to the programme.

In any event, Sunday’s recital starts 7.30pm. Full details: www.forgevenue,org. Recommended.

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A Big Messiah in North London

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ENO’s Damnation of Faust…already damned?

English National Opera hasn’t been having too much luck with its idea of entrusting opera stagings to directors with no experience of staging opera. Matching fresh minds to old repertory is all very well but high-risk. And so far it’s resulted in disasters like the last Don Giovanni and damp squibs like the recent Gounod Faust – which I see has found no favour with Angela Gheorghiu. She was booked to sing this same production at the Met but has just pulled out on the enigmatic grounds that it wouldn’t be good for her reputation (as if cancelling the entire run of a show you’ve signed up for serves your reputation any better).

Meanwhile, ENO carry on regardless with another Faust – this time the Berlioz Damnation – and another first-time opera director, Terry Gilliam (the man who put the crushing foot into Monty Python’s graphics).

Whether it will be any better than the others, who knows?. But to help form your own opinion you might check out the short promo film ENO have released in advance of opening night. It’s

I can only say that if I were a major opera company and this was all I’d been able to get from a director tackling a large and complex piece, I don’t think I’d have issued the film clip. But then, if I were a major opera company, I think had have ditched the first-time director idea by now.

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Britten-Pears Foundation grants for the Centenary in 2013

According to information just released jointly by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Benjamin Britten now ranks as the third most frequently staged opera composer of the 20th Century, after Puccini and Richard Strauss.

Perhaps that information isn’t so surprising but it’s good to know officially; and it’s further evidence of what we also sort of knew, which is that there’s an ever-growing industry associated with the Britten brand.

This website, in a small way, is a part of it; and as someone who has been seriously in love with Britten’s music since childhood – with ongoing consequences – so, perhaps am I. I want people to know about him, his life, his works, the world of Aldeburgh; and I couldn’t be more pleased that there are active, adequately funded and successful bodies like the Britten-Pears Foundation working to to that end. They get my vote.

But I do sometimes wonder what composers of the past would think about the heritage operations of the present that exist to protect and promote their legacy. In principle, of course, they’d be delighted: you don’t write music without wanting it to survive, and survival requires effort. Deprived of publication, performance and promotion, even deathless music would die.

But the scale and power of some of the grander composer estates and foundations can be formidable. Occasionally choking. And though I cast no criticism at the doors of Aldeburgh, whose various Britten-related institutions seem to me to exercise their powers commendably – promoting new work as well as old, championing a range of causes that were close to Britten’s heart, and (not least) maintaining the annual festival that means more to me than any other in existence – it’s now a rather big business by the standards of classical music. And big isn’t always best when it comes to the arts.

That said, it was encouraging as well as interesting to hear that Britten-Pears has been able to provide some £775,000 in grants toward events around the world that will be marking the Britten centenary in 2013.

Recipients range from productions of Billy Budd in Argentina and New Zealand to Church Parables in Russia and Israel, and Peter Grimes in Shanghai and Beijing. In the process, fears that the Britten Centenary would be badly hit by tough economic times have to some extent been allayed. It looks as though it really will be an event, worldwide.

I only hope that in the grand scale of it all there will be some small space in which to ponder JV’s contribution to the Britten story. She was part of it. And not without significance.

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A Rising Young Handelian Countertenor – from Sudan

This coming Saturday, a North London choral society takes on Handel’s Messiah with a countertenor singing the alto arias. And though that may sound adventurous to older listeners who’d rather hear Dame Janet Baker (the great British mezzo of her day who sang Messiah not a few times with Jennifer Vyvyan on the platform beside her) it’s a common enough thing to do. Ever since it premiered in 1742, countertenors have had a claim on at least some of this music. And now there are so many of them around, they turn up in Messiah all the time: they’re not the rare, exotic creatures they once were.
But countertenors from Sudanare another matter. And as probably the only Sudanese countertenor in the business, Magid El-Bushra, who’ll be singing on Saturday, can’t help but stand out – which is no bad thing when you’re building a career.
Given that places like Sudan have almost no contact with the tradition of western music – still less the tradition of period performance in which countertenors function – you might wonder how Magid (whose name is pronounced like magic but with a d) got started. The answer is that, although he was born in Khartoum, his family moved to Britain when he was four, and then got stuck here.
‘I don’t want to suggest we were refugees, we weren’t. But because my father was Sudanese and my mother English, they used to go back and forth. Then my father, who was an academic Egyptologist but involved in politics, got posted to the embassy in London as cultural attache. And then came civil war, a military coup, so he couldn’t go back. I haven’t seen Sudan since I was six’.
Living initially on Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Hampstead (just along from where Jennifer Vyvyan lived and died) Magid went to the local comprehensive and then on to Magdalen, Oxford as a choral scholar. After that, the Royal College of Music as a postgrad, with further study in Paris and Flanders that edged him into the heart of the period performance world – singing with ensembles like Les Arts Florissants.
But if there’s one person he holds responsible for what’s now, at age 30, a career on the threshold of real significance, it’s Ronald Corp – founder-conductor of the New London Children’s Choir and also conductor of Highgate Choral Society who are doing this Saturday’s Messiah. As a small boy, it was with the NLCC that Magid first learned to sing.
‘Being in the NLCC was the most enjoyable thing you could do with your childhood’ he says, thinking back. ‘I loved every minute of it, and Ron was hugely important in encouraging me to believe I really did have a voice. So we’ve always kept in touch, and I’m always happy to work with his choral society, where I still know some of the singers’.
Last year Magid premiered a Ron Corp song cycle at Aldeburgh. And new or new-ish music beyond the ‘period’ canon is in fact a large part of his repertory.
The kind of countertenor who doesn’t feel limited by stylistic boundaries, he happily sings Debussy and Poulenc ‘because I think there’s an ambiguity in my voice-type that suits that kind of music’. And not so long ago he was singing the (normally female but in any event freakish) role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress: an excursion into drag that’s starting to look habitual.
‘Last year on the Glyndebourne tour I covered and eventually went on as the Nurse in Coronation of Poppea. And I’ve done the Sorceress in Dido & Aeneas. They were both good things to do, but it will be a relief to be a man again the next time I’m on an opera stage, which is in Germany in May: a production of Handel’s Saul where I play David. Sensitive but male’.
Between now and then come concerts in Oxford and Belgium, a tour through Switzerland and Austria with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, and this Highgate Messiah – which he approaches from the interesting perspective of someone born to a Moslem father, Unitarian mother, but no strong religious conviction either way.
‘With a piece like this that everyone does and knows, you have to try to make it your own. Which means finding some way to make it relevant to yourself, whatever your background, and communicate it meaningfully. That’s the task’.
Highgate Choral Society with soloists including Magid El-Bushra performs Messiah:
Sat 5 Mar, 7.30pm, St Joseph’s, Highgate, London N6. 020 8883 5631

Magid El-Bushra (photo: Hanya Chlala)

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A Jennifer Vyvyan Study Day at Wigmore Hall – Advance News

And news doesn’t get much more advanced than this – which indicates the time-scale that music administration runs to these days but is nonetheless a something for your diary. Or more likely, diaries.

Some months ago we approached John Gilhooly, the director of Wigmore Hall, with an idea for a Jennifer Vyvyan study day; and a date has now been fixed for Saturday 29 September 2012. Note the year.

It’s a long way off but it at least gives us plenty of time to get the format right and make sure we have a real event – which is certainly the intention. As things stand, it will probably run from lunchtime through to the evening and finish with a concert of the kind of repertory JV was known for, sung by one of the leading young British sopranos of our own day.

It will be led by me – I give regular talks at the Wigmore and have presented these sort of study events before, although in the past they’ve featured composers (Vaughan Williams) or works (Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet) rather than performing artists.

In this case I’ll be opening out the perspective out to embrace the broader context of Vyvyan’s career, which is why the provisional title for the day is ‘Jennifer Vyvyan and English singing in the mid-20th Century’. And I hope to include in the schedule a panel of distinguished names who knew that world of singing from the inside and can share their memories – too early yet to specify excatly who they’ll be, but watch this space.

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Joan Sutherland’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey: a reminder of mortality

Joan Sutherland was a year younger than Jennifer Vyvyan, born in 1926. But that was close enough for their careers to run side by side for a while. And although Sutherland’s career soared to incomparable heights – not for nothing was she dubbed The Voice of the Century – one of her early Covent Garden roles was stepping in for Vyvyan in the cast of Britten’s Gloriana.

Gloriana premiered in 1953 with Vyvyan as Lady Rich. Sutherland had made her Covent Garden debut the year before, but she was still singing small roles and wouldn’t hit the headlines until six years later with her historic 1959 Lucia di Lammermoor.

Meanwhile, the Gloriana production was scheduled to tour to Rhodesia; and although Britten wrote Vyvyan a flattering letter begging her to stay with the show on tour, she didn’t. So the role of Lady Rich passed to Sutherland – who was clearly not Britten’s choice. The incident may well have contributed to the not so flattering parody of Sutherland’s Lucia success that Britten incorporated into A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960.

I was pondering all this yesterday at Sutherland’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey where, unsurprisingly, the music included nothing by Britten. But there sure was a lot of music.

The Royal Opera orchestra played bel canto medleys under Antonio Pappano. A fine young Australian soprano, Valda Wilson, sang Mozart and Faure. The hymns focused on the theme of vocal praise – with Vaughan Williams’ ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’ as the perfectly appropriate choir anthem. And the first lesson – read by Norma Major who once wrote a lame but well-intentioned Sutherland biography – was the power-of-music passage where Saul is troubled and calls for the aural balm of ‘a man who is a cunning player on an harp’.

What stays in my mind, though, was a small but understandable slip in one of the prayers. A member of the Sutherland family was giving thanks for the great lady’s ‘gift of friendship and loyalty to those she loved’ – except the reader stumbled into the present tense and said ‘loves’. And that, I thought, summed up the paradox of people dying on you.

If you were at all close to them, you know they’re gone but feel they haven’t. And although most of us in the Abbey yesterday can only have had limited contact with Joan Sutherland, she was a presence in the world that doesn’t disappear.

I never saw her sing onstage, except in cameo at the end of her career when the show was over; and to be truthful, her bel canto repertoire has never been one of my passions. But there was no denying the glory of that voice. And thanks to Mr Edison’s miracle, the voice is still there.

It was there in the Abbey yesterday, on two recorded extracts that played on not such a miraculous sound system and didn’t seem to me to represent her at her best (an early Let the Bright Seraphim where there are moments of vocal vulnerability before the triumphant flourish at the end, and a Casta Diva that sounded sepulchral: a bit too obviously from the far side of the grave). But in every other respect it was an affirmatively wonderful occasion.

Memorials, though, are always a reminder of mortality. The music establishment turned out in force for this one, some of them looking fragile. Lord Harewood – who features in the photo at the top of this page, second from the left – was there in a wheelchair. Sir John Tooley, who ran the Royal Opera House in its glory days of the 70s and 80s, gave the address but had to be helped to the pulpit by a wandsman: always a dignified figure, he doesn’t walk so well now. And of course, there was Sutherland’s life partner Richard Bonynge – who read the second lesson, haltingly but also with enormous dignity.

My dealings with Joan Sutherland were happy ones but few and far between, and I don’t know if she had deep belief or if she’d have appreciated this kind of grand Anglican remembrance. But she could only have appreciated being loved – who wouldn’t? – and there was a lot of love in this service. It was the church at its best, celebrating humankind at its best. A kind of human whose place in our musical experience will always feel distinctly present-tense.

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