Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Gwyn Hughes Jones dominated a rip-roaringly good concert revival of Verdi’s cult thriller
First performed in 1844, Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera, has something of the status of a cult thriller. Set in Renaissance Spain, it explores the consequences of a moral code that values honour above everything else – even life itself. The bandit Ernani, the implacable grandee De Silva, and Carlo, the Holy Roman emperor in waiting, are slugging it out for the love of De Silva’s ward, Elvira. But Ernani has also pledged his life to De Silva in exchange for his assistance in rescuing her from Carlo, who has taken her hostage, and the old grandee is soon demanding his oath be taken literally.
George Bernard Shaw admired “the fierce noonday sun” of the score, one of the young Verdi’s finest. The Chelsea Opera Group’s concert revival, conducted by Robin Newton, superbly captured the music’s fire and fury, and its sense of violent emotion held in check by social and political ritual. It was sung at thrilling full throttle – anything less won’t do – and dominated by the performance of Gwyn Hughes Jones in the title role. His voice is massive and a bit gritty, and he didn’t make his task any easier by opting to include a tricky extra aria that Verdi added – at Rossini’s request, for a performance in Parma shortly after the premiere – which is rather high for him. But the urgency and passion of his singing were gripping.
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Simpson’s new occult-obsessed oratorio, with Melanie Challenger’s libretto about the founder of the Society of Psychical Research, asks the existential question: is anybody there?
Mark Simpson says he composed the music for The Immortal, a blazingly original 40-minute oratorio steeped in the world of Victorian occultism, in a form of trance. If the purpose of art is to pose existential questions, then the piece, commissioned by the Manchester International festival and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Chamber Choir and Exaudi, is concerned with what might be the most fundamental question of all: is anybody there?
Related: Q&A: composer Mark Simpson
Royal Opera House, LondonYes, the rape scene was ugly. But to show something is not to endorse it – and we have seen far worse in opera
Booing: the one petard guaranteed to hoist opera into the headlines. The Royal Opera’s new Guillaume Tell, perceptively conducted by Antonio Pappano, with a top cast led by Gerald Finley, John Osborn and Malin Byström, has achieved it as never before – and mid-performance at that. The noise on first night, which started as a lone shout and turned into a heckling barrage, was so solid I wondered if it had come from a prearranged, European-style claque. This grandest of red-plush auditoriums, for several minutes, became a loutish playground. How the performers kept going, steadfast and professional to the end, is anyone’s guess.
Despite attempts in opera circles to turn it into a talking point, booing is a dead issue. It’s a given, part of the freedom of expression valued by a civilised world, though hardly itself a civilised gesture. I don’t like it. Others do. The question here was why it happened at all. If a production is unpopular, the usual place to voice opinion is at the final curtain (it was, too), when the production team come on to take their bow. Here it was a nasty interruption. It happens, rarely, elsewhere. In Vienna the police had to be called mid-Trovatore when a row broke out about the singer. The cause at the ROH, as widely reported, was a dance interlude in which Austrian soldiers – dressed in generic Nazi-Fascist uniforms – first molested, then stripped, then gang-raped a Swiss villager.
Rudolf Buchbinder (piano) (Sony)
“Composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits”, Bach’s six keyboard partitas were first published as a set in 1731. The Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, now approaching 70, plays the contrasting No 1 in B flat and No 2 in C minor, plus the English Suite No 3 in G minor with its grand, almost “orchestral” opening prelude and well known Gavottes I & II. Usually associated with later Germanic repertoire (hear his Beethoven Sonatas at Edinburgh in August), Buchbinder emphasises bass figuration and an excess of baroque ornament takes a while to get used to on a modern Steinway. When you do, this is a rewarding and highly personal disc and the music dances.
Claire Huangci (Berlin Classics; 2 CDs)
You can do so much with Scarlatti’s hundreds of keyboard sonatas – arrange them for the accordion or guitar, put them in all sorts of different order; here Claire Huangci groups them together, first as Suites on CD one, and then as Sonatas on CD two. Pure invention, creating a certain tonal monotony (seven successive sonatas in G major is too many). The “Sonatas” are more varied as their central movements are in different keys, but they tend to be paced so as to be “slow” movements. Huangci’s Yamaha piano has a harpsichord-like sound that suits her pert finger staccato: there is some stunning fast playing, and the gem-like brilliance of Scarlatti’s invention shines through.
Is it that time again?
Nearly. They start on 17 July with Walton’s epic choral work Belshazzar’s Feast and end in a blaze of Last Night flag-waving glory on 12 September, with super-tenor Jonas Kaufmann and conductor Marin Alsop. Founded by Henry Wood 120 years ago, this year’s festival features 76 main concerts as well as matinees, Late Nights, Proms in the Park and more, all available via BBC radio, TV or online. Following Roger Wright’s departure in 2014, Edward Blakeman is in charge this season; Glyndebourne’s David Pickard, newly appointed Proms director, takes over permanently in the autumn.
Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-1972) was something of a tragic figure; wealthy, talented, well connected and the possessor of a formidable technique, he devoted his life to music, writing copiously for the piano, the orchestra and the stage. But despite all his advantages he could never find a publisher, resorting to his own money to put his music in front of an audience. The critics were harsh, questioning why in the mid-20th century he was writing florid, late-Romantic pieces such as the preludes and variations played so faithfully here by Simon Callaghan. The fevered, relentless chromaticism is hard to take but this is at least an opportunity to reassess a composer admired by Rachmaninov but already out of his time.
The great singer, whose Operalia competition comes to London next week, says stage productions need to stay close to composer’s intention
Plácido Domingo, one of the world’s greatest opera stars, has expressed sadness at an explicit rape scene staged at his beloved Royal Opera House last week. The Spanish singer, who famously performed with Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras as the Three Tenors, told the Observer he prefers opera productions to stay close to the original intentions of the composer.
His words come in the wake of the controversy surrounding director Damiano Michieletto’s ROH production of Rossini’s opera Guillaume Tell. The opera, which opened at Covent Garden on Monday, was met with loud booing from the audience, many of whom were outraged by scenes showing an uncredited actress being violently sexually abused during a banquet, accompanied by a jaunty passage in the score.
The career path of a young conductor is rarely straightforward. Ahead of his UK opera debut Gad Kadosh talks about tips from Bernard Haitink, music in the army and finding his way in the dark depths of an orchestra pit
Just as the conductor’s art can appear a somewhat mysterious one, so the art of building a conducting career can be equally opaque, even to those engaged in it. On 4 July, , the young French-Israeli conductor Gad Kadosh makes his UK opera debut with the Longborough festival production of Rigoletto. But when Kadosh was a piano student at an arts high school in Tel Aviv in the early 2000s, he had no idea how to develop his interest in conducting. “So I just started asking people who were conducting us in orchestras or choirs,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘How do you do that?’ How do you become a conductor?’ It sounds like a stupid question, but it is not wrong. I even asked Daniel Barenboim when he visited us. I was about 16 or 17 and was terrified. But I thought I was quite advanced in having this ambition and so wondered at what age he had started conducting. He said ‘I was nine’. So maybe I wasn’t so advanced after all.”
The route Kadosh eventually found to the podium was via the German kapellmeister system, in which young musicians train as assistant conductors in concerts, opera, theatre and dance in one of Germany’s numerous musical theatres, moving from small to larger venues as their career progresses, and entering competitions. But his invitation to Longborough, and to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra later this year, came after he had distinguished himself in a Bernard Haitink masterclass at the 2012 Lucerne festival. Kadosh conducted for Haitink the whole of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony as well as pieces by Schumann, Ravel and Bruckner. “It was a wonderful experience. Haitink understood that each conductor is different and so it was never a question of him just saying do this or that. One time he worked with me on just the left hand, and far from making me feel insecure it showed me what I was able to do.” Haitink also noticed that Kadosh had a tendency towards adopting slower tempi. “Which is OK, but can be dangerous. He didn’t make me do anything new, but he did encourage me to always question whether I was going down a dangerous route. You don’t want to have a tempo that you are the only one who enjoys. That’s not the idea at all.”
The main complaint about the rape scene is that it doesn’t sit well with a jaunty Rossini piece. But why, then, are graphic operatic murders acceptable?
The opera world is not very porous. When, on the first night of Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House earlier this week, people booed at the rape scene, at one point drowning out the music, and critics busted it from a four-star down to a one-star, and people bemoaned a huge range of things about modern life, from the sensibilities of its major opera players to the attention-seeking traits of its audiences, they were not objecting to the depiction of sexual violence for the reasons that you or I would. Well, not for the reasons I would, anyway.
“I was dreading it, to be honest. Regietheater and all that,” said Juliette after Thursday’s performance. (German for “director’s theatre”, which is opera code for “people making you look at things you don’t want to see” – even their codes are coded through other languages). “I gather they covered her in a sheet, for tonight’s performance. She was naked before. But I loved it.” (I dispensed with the normal practice of asking for people’s ages. When I asked their names, some people looked at me as though I’d asked for their pin number).
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