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CLASSICAL ICONOCLAST
Doundou Tchil
"Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Bewahrung und das Weiterreichen des Feuers" - Gustav Mahler
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21 hours ago |
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Seven Little Fooks (???)  a reference to folklore tales about seven kids who bring good luck.  In this case, a group of boys being trained in Beijing opera.  But they are refugee kids in a community of exiles : in the south, their northern origins don't mean much. Gradually they grow up and find work in Hong Kong kung fu movies. This is a film about their teacher, Master Yu Zhangzong, struggling to maintain his art in a world that doesn't care.  An exquistely filmed movie, sensitive to changing social nuances. Essential viewing, even for those who know only kung fu, since Chinese opera is the root from which martial arts grew. To understand kung fu, and Chinese culture itself, you need to know the world of Chinese opera. But this is also a very personal story, based on real people and real memories.  Clue : the eldest boy is nicknamed "Three Hairs". Translate that as Sammo and realize it's Sammo Hung who still carries his nickname though he's famous today. And who is "Big Nose" ? The now ubiquitous Jackie Chan, a bigger star than many in Hollywood.  In the movie Master Yu is played by the adult Sammo Hung,  who has won many awards, but must treasure this, since he's portraying the man who shaped him.  So Seven Little Fooks, (directed in 1988 by Alex Law Kai chui) is about real people, caught up in an era of unprecedented change. Evocative music by Lowell Lo Koon-ting.

It's December 1st,1962, when much of Hong Kong was stilll pre-war tenement, houses built on terraces, where people share communal spaces, like the neighbour, a tailor, who works in the yard and can't stand the sound of the kids singing.  A new boy arrives.  "Can I do cartwheels all day and not study?" he asks. "Then I'll sign for ten years!", he squeaks. His mother's crying,  but it's best for him, though the contract she seals with her thumb print (she's illiterate) is severe. If kids die in training, no questions asked.  That was the traditional way.  Notice the kid's name is Chan Kong-sang, which means Chan "Born in Hong Kong", marking his parents brief respite after 20 years of struggle in war-torn China.  He's now Jackie Chan.  And so the kids learn tthe basics of Beijing opera, as much physical fitness and gymnastics as opera in the western sense. That's why they neeed to start young to be flexible.  The school is very old style. The kids live communal and have shaved heads like kids in the North used to do. The local kids mock them, singing a rude song which the subtitles don't translate ("baldies, baldies, butter up your butts"). The kids give a performance but Big Nose fell asleep. The audience walks out "They've gone home to the radio" scolds Master Yu - the radio and big theatres being where top quality operas were done : small troupes can't compete.  So they get beaten with canes.  Mrs Chan comes to bathe the kids - no plumbing - and knows he's been beaten. But he says "Don't cry". Opera school is tough but the kids think they're freer than the ones in regular school, chanting by rote.   When Master Yu goes out the boys march into town to collect charity rice. On their way back they clash with the fancy kids and there's a brawl.   The taunt "Four eye'd boys, blind as turtles!" (meaning kids with glasses). Ponder that detail, it's important.  Wandering far from home, they need to get back by bus, but haven't any money so they con the driver and later escape without paying.  Watch them use their opera athletics to escape from the top deck !

Meanwhile Master Yu and his friend Uncle Wah chat in a teahouse. They trained together as boys themselves, in Beijing. "Rain or snow, we'd get up early and train". For what ?  Few make it big in opera. Wah works as a stuntman and stand-in for stars.  Bruises and broken ribs "Thirty years of good luck, thirty years of bad" quotes master Yu. "And then you're dead" says Uncle Wah. To cheer him, Master Wu starts singing, in the middle of the tea house, and Uncle Wah  gets his dream, to sing again, for a public.  When Master Yu gets home, the Cantonese tailor confronts him because  the opera boys punched his kid.  Master Yu holds his ground and defends his kids. Tailor and Opera master swap insults : scholars are too weak to work, too proud to beg : actors are prostitutes.  Another witty retort not in the subtiles "Chicken piss!". But when the Lunar New Year comes, they all celebrate together. 

Gradually the boys grow up, doing shows in proper cinemas. They also discover girls. Big Nose tries to impress by rotating a pot on his head, but modern girls are more interested in guitar bands.  One day, the leader of a Cantonese female troupe asks for help, since Beijing boys are much better at gymnastics. Master Yu doesn't have modern social skills either. He wants to buy the female troupe leader a "western" birthday cake, but none of the traditional bakers do that. He has to travel all round town until he finds one. Alas, the inscription says "Happy 70th, Grandad!. So Master Yu can't read!  It's extremely bad luck, since the Grandad it was baked for died that morning..... Master Yu isn't the only one  not up with the times. The Tailor can't understand modern fashion. His son "borrows" for Big Nose  the fancy togs his Dad's made for western customers and the two go out together. But the girl prefers the nerdy tailor's son who can "sing Beatles" as the girl's kid brother says. "You Beijing opera types no-one wants". Big Nose goes back, dejected but he's missed a show. Sammo substituted for him, but Master Yu beats him for covering up Big Nose's disobedience and kicks him out of the troupe. Sinc it's been his life, he has nowhere to go.

But business isn't going well and the troupe is dissolved.  Sammo reappears crestfallen and is  welcomed by Uncle Wah.  Master Yu goes to Uncle Wah's movie studio to get work for the boys.  He's forced to cut up a group photo so their heads can go on the register. Uncle Wah, who has been working as a stuntman for years, is getting old and has too many accidents.  He blows his last chance and suddenly goes insane, climbing up into the roof space in the studio, mad with grief, re-enacting opera scenes. An amazing scene. Master Yu climbs up and starts to sing an aria from The Emperor and the Concubine, where the Emperor has lost his,kingdom, but his concubine remains loyal.   For a moment, Master Yu and Uncle Wah are back to be stars again, singing together. Uncvle Wah thinks he's an opera star again. then he's taken away in an ambulance.

Master Yu calls his boys together. He's spent 40 years in opera. Success or not, he's given it full committment.   The school is closed, the house is being demolished and the boys are starting out onn their own paths. so now he'll retire, abroad. He releases the tortoise he's kept for seven years to hold up his bed, feeding and watering it . Its back is strong and it it still knows how to walk.   Master Yu boards the ship, that's taking him away, forever.  "You persevered 40 years and so will we" says Big Nose. "Sammo look after them !" the master's last command.  When they're gone he looks at the gift they've left. A white paper fan with what look like scribbles. But when the folds are aligned the squiggles spell out ???, Seven Siu Fooks.  Below a photo of Master Yu who lived to a grand old age and his boys, now grown men.

PLenty moire on this site about Chinese movies, Chinese oopera and music, especially Cantonese. THis ius the only site in Englishwhich does these subjects from a wider social perspective.

2 days ago |
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W. Denis Browne (1888-1915),  as a schoolboy at Greyfriars, Leamington Spa.  This photo might sum him up better than the usual photos of him in uniform, for his last music was written in June 1914. Almost exactly a year later, he would be killed at Gallipolli.  In this photo his youthful spirit  is captured forever, gazing wistfully but unafraid.  Browne went on to Cambridge and later studied with Busoni. He heard Stravinsky, and was impressed enough by The Rite of Spring and Petrushka to embark on his own ballet, never completed.  Today he's best known for a handful of songs, particularly To Gratiana, Dancing and Singing to a poem by Richard Lovelace (1617-1657).  Though that song is well represented on recordings,  most of the other songs are less well served.  I wish there were better versions on record of Arabia, for example, Browne's last completed song, which I've heard live in much better performance.

Arabia is an adventurous piece which seems to reach out, exploring new musical territory.  The poem, by Walter de la Mere, describes "the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon, 'mid the verduous vales and thickets under the ghost of the moon". The piano part moves with mysterious deliberation, firm single chords separated by silence, allowing the voice to ring out. The idea  might be to suggest a voice reaching over vast expanses. Not expanses of desert, though, but a "vaulted purple" where "flowers in the forest rise and toss into blossom against the phantom skies".  Warm breezes seem to propel the second verse, "Sweet is the music of Arabia" each line infused by gentle, swaying rhythms.  The vocal line rises high, and the piano part changes, suggesting the plucking of "strange lutes" that "ring loud with delight.......in the brooding silence of the night". Despite the beautiful sounds around him, the poet is haunted by someone, something others cannot see. "Stll eyes look coldly upon me, cold voices whisper and say "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his wits away". Not a romantic reverie ! Thus the jumbled images of moon and noon, of feverish, unhealthy imagination.  Ideal territory for the kind of English tenor who can express archness and horror behind luminous limpidity. Not straightforward at all. 

5 days ago |
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Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Gounod celebrated in Paris last night by Palazzetto Bru Zane. Look HERE at the programme ! and watch it again HERE on arte.tv.  Excerpts from many of his operas, and Olivier Latry performing an improvisation for organ.  Gounod's reputation has expanded greatly : so much more to him than Faust (which is pretty brilliant).  PLEASE READ THIS IMPORTANT PIECE FROM PALAZETTO BRU ZANE who have done so much to expand knowledge of the composer and his repertoire.  Please see also HERE my review of the most recent Gounod rarity, his last oratorio Saint François d'Assise.  A new recording of Gounod's mélodies is being released soon, which I'll write about shortly
6 days ago |
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François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles Ravel Ma mère l'Oye, coupled with Le Tombeau de Couperin with Shéhérazade between them, latest in Les Siècles's Ravel series for Harmonia Mundi which began with their Daphnis et Chloé, so exquisitely beautiful that it remains by my desk for frequent listening.  This new disc focuses on two main works initially published for piano, but conceived with potential for orchestra. "To orchestrate, for Ravel" said Emile Vuillermoz, was to "exploit the colour of the istruments , to atch their timbres, to vary and nuance them down to the slightest detail, without ever losing sight of the overall balance". Ideal for Roth and Les Siècles whose forte is clarity and exqusite clarity, clean jewel-like sparkle enlivened by a feel for the passionate imagination that inspired the composer.  Ma mère l'Oye may have been written for children, but its magic is so strong that adults. too, can be drawn under its spell. With Roth and Les Siècles you don't get "kid stuff".  Indeed, the more sophisticated the players, and the more sensitive the listener, the stronger the sense of enchantment.

This performance of the full 1912 ballet version of  Ma mère l'Oye is almost too exquisite to be earthbound,  though it bristles with energy.  The first notes of the Prelude suggest the pipes of Pan, the switrl of flutes, the movement of some mysterious creature. Winds blow, and dizzying strings - spinning wheels - hypnotize us into reverie so we can dream, like the Beauty, sleep in the forest. More shivers and shimmerings, as the Beauty awakes to meet the Beast. the woodwinds sing,  and the lower strings growl : suggesting the Beast whose form is brutish but his soul refined.  In this mysterious realm (tender strings) lives too Le petit Poucet who is small and frail (birdlike woodwinds) but outsmarts the Ogre.  Magical harps, tremulous woodwinds evoke the even more exotic kingdom of Laideronette. Percussion in "oriental" patterns, as angular as the shape of pagodas, building up to elegant, though wistful melody.  Laideronette and her serpent friend are under a spell.  Roth and Les Siècles alternate slow and more agitated passages enhancing the flow. The Apothéose, in the jardin féerique is delicate, yet magnificent.

Thus to Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1898). Although this was to have been part of an opera,  Roth and Les Siècles bring out the tightness of its structure, demonstrating the strength of its design, as purposeful as a ballet. Though Stravinsky would not have known it (it remained unpublished until 1975),  this performance is so well-defined that the piece feels like a prototype for something Diaghilev might have considered for the Ballets Russe.

Roth values the importance of structure in French repertoire, evolving as it did from the baroque, where elaborations are built upon firm, disciplined foundations influenced by dance and formal patterns.  Thus Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, in his four movement orchestration, premiered in 1920. Thus the piece is as much an hommage to French style as a a series of memorials to Ravel's friends who died in the 1914-1918 war.  A vivacious Prélude, with the oboe as lithe and athletic as a creature of the forest (an unexpected link to Ma mère l'Oye). The dance origins of the Forlane are even more evident , a forlane being a folk dance form from Italy which Couperin adapted.  Hence the sprightliness, every "step" in the music sharply articulated and vibrant.  The Minuet is more formal but equally well  presented.  This is what period inspired performance means, not instruments per se but an understanding of repertoire itself.  The Rigaudon here is particularly impressive, combining elegance with boisterousness, and a tinge of sadness. Oboe and strings interact, two voices entwining like partners in a dance, or the two brothers Ravel knew, who went cheerfully to war and were promptly killed, by the same shell.  

9 days ago |
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9 days ago |
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Klaus Florian Vogt and Thomas J Mayer, copyright Tristram Kenton, Royal Opera House
Wagner Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House.With some of the finest Lohengrin, most experienced specialists in the business - Klaus Florian Vogt,  Andris Nelsons and Georg Zeppenfeld - this was guaranteed to be an overwhelming musical experience.   Outstanding richness and depth in the orchestra,  with the scene on the Scheldt materializing in the music with such dramatic power  that anyone, even the most anti-war, could believe, for a moment in what was later to be called the "First Reich".   Horns and trumpets blazed from all round the Royal Opera House building, most appropriately from the Royal Box itself, bringing a vast, invisible army into the semi-civilized confines of an opera house. "Für deutsches Land das deutsche Schwert! So sei des Reiches Kraft bewährt!". 

Brabant is in turmoil, but only part of a wider struggle of cosmic proportions.  Heinrich der Vogler might have been a real person but Lohengrin is opera, not history.  For Wagner, Lohengrin isn't "just" a war story but the continuation (in advance, given that Lohengrin came before Parsifal) of a struggle between pseudo-Christianity and demonic forces.  If Lohengrin descends (somehow) from Parsifal, then Ortrud and Telramund connect to Klingsor and Kundry, their sexes reversed.  Hence the paranoia that underlies this opera and its strange, mystical resolution. And in times of extremist hysteria, the individual is suppressed. Elsa needs a super-hero, but when she gets one, he turns out not to be quite the man of her dreams.  The people of Brabant are conformists, easily swayed. Not so different from the modern world.  So it's nonsense to call David Alden's production "updating" or even semi-Third Reich. Grandiose manias, grandiose buildings and monotone masses have gone together since the dawn of history.

Thus the Prelude, conducted by Andris Nelsons with sublime purity, so the sounds seemed to shimmer with ethereal light. If Nelsons can do richness, he's even better at creating subtle atmosphere. Gradually, the mists give way to light, and the drama can begin. The King listens to Telramund's accusations and Elsa's strangely inert defence. But  lo ! Alden's staging (sets Paul Steinberg, video Tal Rosner, lighting Adam Silverman) creates the entry of the Saviour (for that is what Lohengrin is).  Huge, dark ripples projected over the stage suggested the movement of waves, concentric circles stretching outward, with flashes showing the wings of a large flying bird.   In this opera, it is not the swan boat per se that counts, but the imagery of water, and the theological connotations thereof. Again, think Parsifal.  The pettiness and intrigure of Court wiped clean away by the appearnce of the champion.

Significantly, Lohengrin is first seen with his back to the audience, his voice projecting to the back of the stage, intensifying the sense of mystery.  This is an interpretive insight, for Lohengrin isn't here "for" Elsa but for an unknown higher purpose.  Veiling Klaus Florian Vogt's magnificent voice in this way also serves to stress the character's innate humility. Unlike kings and intriguers, Lohengrin is above petty power games.  When Vogt turned round, his voice grew with the strength that comes from absolute confidence. "Ein Wunder ! Ein Wunder!" indeed.  Vogt has done Lohengrin so many times over the last 20 years (including with Nelsons)  that his voice should be familiar to all, but yet again, I was astonished by its flexibility and beauty.  Almost superhuman purity, so natural and unforced that it seems to come from within., not merely from technique. This is true artistry. Vogt is a Lohengrin for the ages: How blessed we are to hear him. 

Lohengrin spares Telramund, who confronts Ortrud, who set him up in the first place. The relationship between Ortrud and Telramund suggests the relationship between Klingsor and Kundry, this time the dominant partner female rather than male (though Klingsor isn't male any more). Ortrud is the last of the ancient house of Radbod, Telramund drawn to her by his greed for power, though he blames her when he fails. They  are important characters, not quite as secondary as they might seem, so deserve the attention they are given in this production.  Thomas J Mayer is a good Telramund, and  Christine Goerke is a magnificent Elektra amongst many others: particularly good in roles where the character is strong and proactive, if misunderstood.  Ortrud is forced by fate into dangerous measures.  We're not supposed to like Ortrud but Goerke develops the part so we can sense the woman behind the monster, sensuality behind piercing steel, her voice her sword.  Elsa always takes centre stage, but Ortrud is a far more complex personality, and needs singers like Goerke who can express the depths in the otherwise thankless part.  To some extent, sexuality is involved, as so often in Wagner.  Telramund had wanted to marry Elsa, but married Ortrud instead, and sex is very much part of their alliance.  But more pointedly, why does Lohengrin, a pure knight, want to marry ? The big bed, the wedding songs etc hint at the procreative purpose of marriage. Maybe it's convenient that Elsa asks the forbidden question  and needs to know who he really is. Like his father, Lohengrin doesn't follow through but returns to his higher mission.  Gottfried, the true heir of Brabant, will arise again at the end of the opera, resurrected from the non-dead without much explanation.

The entry into the bridal chamber was introduced with such vitality by Nelsons and the ROH Orchestra that the staging, for once, did intrude. With music as gloriously performed as this, there was no need to distract by having actors run in between the seats. In the orchestra stalls, where we were seated, it was annoying and would probably have been missed by anyone further above.  Jennifer Davis sang Elsa at short notice in place of Christina Opolais (who's getting divorced from Nelsons). In the Second Act, she showed her mettle, singing with more volume and colour than she had in the First Act. While she doesn't have the depth of, say, Annette Dasch or Anna Netrebko, two fairly recent Elsas with robust personalities, she's still young and will develop over time.  In this Third Act, in the bridal gown, Davis's good looks expressed the part impressively.  Vogt looked genuinely protective, the luminosity of his singing taking on warmth andmasculine  tenderness.   As Elsa became more petulant, Lohengrin became more alarmed, and in Vogt, we could hear heartfelt regret.  Telramund breaks in - symbolically breaking the hymen in this staging - Lohengrin impaling him on his sword, handed to him by his bride. (Lest anyone query the imagery, it's in the plot).

Significantly, Wagner immediately moves the action back to  the armies assembled on the banks of the Scheldt, the conflict between East and West taking precedence over personal tragedy.  Earlier above I described the phenomenal impact of the musical introduction to this scene.   Nelsons led the orchestra with such intensity that the musical logic carried all before it. Whatever questions may be embedded in the plot,  "Wir geben Fried und Folge dem Gebot!", just as Wagner intended.   Intensity of a different, otherworldly kind, when Lohengrin explains what is about to happen. Vogt has sung "Im fernen Land" many times, and, if anything, his delivery glows with maturity. We forget that it's a "hard sing" testing range and heft, but Vogt illuminated it as if transfigured., yet still tinged with human suffering. The conjuction of Lohengrin, Parsifal and Christ may be theologically way off beam, but in Wagnerian terms, it's perfectly apt.  The King in this opera isn't a fighter, but a judge, almost a Pilate figure, hence the excellent characterization by Georg Zeppenfeld, delivering with real authority. No glitz and gold, but a man of depth.  Notice, neither Wagner's Heinrich nor Lohengrin are men of impulsive violence. Toward the end, Vogt walked quietly to the back of the stage.  Gottfried appeared, and Nelsons ended the performance with a magnificent final coda.

Cast and conductor made this a memorable experience, but the production itself will be worth reviving because it’ss well thought through and true to meaning. Infinitely more  conducive to inspired performance that the old production where the singers were trapped in dalek suits. 
12 days ago |
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At the Barbican, London, Les Arts Florissants conducted by Paul Agnew, with soloists of Le Jardin de Voix in "An English Garden" a semi-staged programme of English baroque.   The term "garden" here refers to two of Sir William Christie's passions, music and gardens, and to the concept of baroque gardening, bridging nature and art.  Baroque gardens turned landscape into theatre, combining art and nature for maximum impact. 
Les Arts Florissants has for several seasons created "gardens"  where  music and song are arranged, like bouquets, to delight the senses.  This "garden" brought together the beauties of the English baroque, with highlights from Purcell,  Locke, Gibbons, Handel, Arne, Ward and Dowland.

Like a formal themed garden the programe was set out in two distinct parts, "The Mystery of Music" and "A Night of Revels". The scene was set by The Curtain Tune, an instrumental prologue to Matthew Locke's The Tempest (1674) an early English semi-opera adapting the spirit of Lully and Moliere to British theatrical tradition.  This Tempest was loosely based on The Tempest of William Shakespeare, where Nature, magic and art come together in glorious mayhem.  As the orchestra played, the singers entered the hall,  hidden in darkness, their voices ringing  out clearly.  Placing the two parts of Orlando Gibbons The Cries of London at the start and end of this "garden" gave it structure, but the choice was inspired.   Gibbons depicts the sounds of London, market traders calling out their wares "Hot apple pies, hot, Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, fine....buy a rope,,,white cabbage, white young cabbage".  Each brief cry follows its own rhythm and the interplay between these simple calls creates intricate polyphony. "Low " society transformed into "high" art.  Thence to Handel "O the pleasures of the plains" from Handel's Acis and Galatea , Purcell's If music be the food of love Z379 and Thomas Tomkins' Music Divine.

Lest all be gracious artifice, Thomas Arne's The Singing Club, a nod to the English taste for communal singing.  It's humorous - a good singer singing about a singer who can't sing too well.   Then a return to fantasy, with Handel and Purcell songs about music and the muse St Cecilia.   The songs also showcased individual instrumental colour - flutes, lutes, pipes and violins, paired with complementary voices. From Thomas Arne's The Fairy Prince, "Now all the air shall ring"  came the rousing final chorus "God Save the King!" Though Arne gave us our national anthem, the king in this case wasn't George III but the king of Fairyland, since Arne's masque  is an adaptation of Ben Jonson's Oberon, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare. One singer waved the Union Flag . I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the music, but suddenly the whole audience burst out in a roar of spontaneous applause. The singers were also waving the flag of the European Union, and the audience loved it ! British culture connects to Europe. Were it not for Handel, Mendelssohn and many others, where would British music be ?  And the flags were perfectly appropriate, since the kings of Arnes's time came from Hanover.

Pealing bells ushered in the "Night of Revels"  with "O let the merry bells ring round" from Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.  Two Purcell songs about Night  and dreams "See, even night herself is here"  and "One Charming Night" from The Fairy Queen Z629 and John Ward's Come, sable night.  Sophie Daneman's semi-staging created great atmosphere. A singer herself, she's worked with Les ArtsFlorissants  for some years, creating sensitive semi staging.  Here she had the singers carry lights in the darkness, so we could see as well as hear  the patterns of interaction.  Night, though, isn't just for sleep.  Thus the group of songs for merriment, starting with "In these delightful,pleasure groves" from Purcell's The Libertine, or the Libertine destroyed Z600, followed by "Welcome black night"  and later "Cease these false spirits" from John Dowland's A Pilgrim's Solace which is about, to put it coyly, married love.  Two Bacchanals from Purcell (Z627 and Z360) release unruly spirits.  Men are pitted against women in Purcell's 'Tis women makes us love Z281. "Tis women makes us love, 'tis love that makes us sad. 'Tis sadness makes us drink, and drinking makes us mad!" Delivered, of course, with great panache.  Then the  famous "Fairest Isle, all isles excelling" from Purcell's King Arthur or the British Worthy Z628, soothing and graceful.  Night leads to morning and three songs of dawn from Handel and Purcell  Then, back we are to London at the break of day, with the bustle of market traders and callers in Part 2 of Gibbon's The Cries of London.
This well-planned Garden of Delights came to life with Paul Agnew leading Les Arts Florissants. 

Part of the Les Arts Flo mission is the nurturing of youthful talent : hence Le Jardin de Voix, the academy for young singers, whose soloists gave vivacious performances. Some are very promising and deserve a good future. Their names - Natasha Schnur, Natalie Pérez, Eva Zaïcik, James Way, Josep-Ramon Olivé and Padraic Rowan.

This review also appears in Opera Today.  Please also see my review of Julian Prégardien and Teatro del Mondo : Orpheus : Songs, madrigals and arias from the 17th century and lots more on Les Arts Flo and Frech baroque on this site

Photo: Roger Thomas
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A happy picture for a sunny day
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