Drama on Tauris

Orfeo ed Euridice, or Orphée et Euridice, might be Gluck’s most popular and frequently encountered opera, but the practically unheard of and unseen Iphigénie en Tauride is a greater one.

An extremely rare opportunity presents itself at the Lyceum Theatre on Tuesday, the 5th of April when English Touring Opera presents its staging of the opera which has garnered highly favourable reviews.

Gluck has never been fashionable but among the 30-plus operas he wrote before his death in 1787 there are at least half-a-dozen masterpieces that were to be a major influence, initially on Mozart – Idomeneo (1781) – and subsequently, Berlioz, Weber and Wagner.

2014 was Gluck’s 300th birthday year and it passed by without trumpet fanfares and yet his importance in the development of opera as a believable art form cannot be trumpeted enough.

He reformed the genre, giving it a more flowing and dramatic style that did away with continuo-accompanied recitative interrupting the action and the excesses and conventions of opera seria – da capo arias were out for start!

Among other things was blurring the distinction between recitative and aria, less repetition of text in arias and generally focussing on the human drama and passion while giving words and music equal importance in a desire to create music drama.

In effect, in the process he went back to the beginnings of opera, which had been born out of Greek mythology and drama; bringing us back to Iphigénie en Tauride, or Iphigenia on Tauris, his penultimate opera staged in Paris in 1779 to a libretto drawn from Euripides.

Arguably, it was the summit of Gluck’s ‘reforms’, which actually began with Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762.

There is no overture, just a short orchestral passage of calm that gives way to mighty storm on the island of Tauris where the goddess Diana has transported Iphigenia after her father Agamemnon had tried to sacrifice her.

In a nutshell, it concerns her as a high priestess of Diana attempting to save her brother Orestes, washed up on the island by the storm whom she believed dead and is slow to recognise (ditto: he in reverse), from he himself being sacrificed.

There is much fine, rarely heard music in the opera, its best known number probably being Iphigenia’s Ô malheureuse Iphigénie towards the end of act two (the opera is in four acts) and it has one highly unusual feature for an opera – there is no love or romantic interest!


Music in the Round Revisit Beethoven

This year’s Music in the Round May Festival at the Crucible Studio is dedicated to Peter Cropper who passed away shortly after last year’s ended and with whom it all started in May 1984.

It was exclusively Beethoven (Peter’s musical god!) then, and although the days of one-composer May Festivals are long gone, it was natural for him to figure prominently this year in Beethoven Revisited!

It sees no fewer than 34 timed events over nine days, 6th of May to the 14th of May, catering for both the serious music listener with some imaginatively-planned concerts and families.

A blow by blow look at the festival would be tedious, especially as a visit to www.musicintheround.co.uk will tell you everything, including ticket prices, discounted subscription packages and, if you are under 35, how to get tickets for £5.

However, a few signposts indicating what is on offer is in order.

A couple of septets get the festival underway, Beethoven’s popular essay, Op 20, preceded by the late one by the French composer of English descent George Onslow (not entirely a festival stranger) for piano, winds and double bass.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is heard in Hummel’s flute quartet transcription, an exercise he similarly undertook on the other six of his first seven symphonies, and seven Mozart piano concertos!

It is not the only the Beethoven work heard in different clothing with renowned jazz pianist and composer Julian Joseph, who has an impressive niche in classical music circles playing chiefly 20th century repertoire, returning to perform the Op 132 string quartet (No 15).

Another composer appears to introduce one of his works, Howard Skempton who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for baritone Roderick Williams and who performs it here after a performance of Beethoven’s second Razumovsky string quartet.

Kreutzer vs Kreutzer sounds like a ‘do not miss’ event. A play for two actors by Laura Wade based on Tolstoy’s novella; it weaves Beethoven’s Kreutzer violin sonata and Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata string quartet into it and has been greeted with considerable acclaim.

The shade of Beethoven has a night off when the Avison Ensemble (two violins, cello and harpsichord) led by Baroque violinist supreme Pavlo Beznosiuk mix Handel trio sonatas, plus a keyboard suite and violin sonata, with works by Bach (arr Mozart) and Johann Stamitz.

Other Beethoven works include the Quintet for piano and winds Op 16 (Mozart’s model for it is also heard), Clarinet Trio Op 11, the Diabelli Variations, String Quintet Op 4, Harp and Serioso string quartets, also lesser known pieces among the WoO number works.

Among other non-Beethoven items are Bartók’s String Quartet No 1, Schoenberg’s rhapsodic Verklärte Nacht, Brahms’s Op 18 string sextet, Schubert’s String Quintet and his Octet.

Ensemble 360 carry the brunt of the performances, while other visiting musicians are the Vertavo String Quartet and there is also a welcome return for Benjamin Frith who plays piano duets by Beethoven with Tim Horton, including the Grosse Fuge.


Review: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Whether someone said something in the interval, or ears somehow adjusted, the second half of the OAE’s all-Bach concert came over better than the first.

It has to be said, the wide open spaces of the City Hall make it a far from ideal venue for an orchestra of seven strings (five high, two low), two oboes, a bassoon, chamber organ and harpsichord – John Butt, directing proceedings from it – performing on period instruments.

There was no denying the quality of the playing when it was capable of being heard, least of all the oboe heroics of Daniel Lanthier throughout, though the violins’ tone was a touch too thin more often than not. Perhaps a little unfair to say in the circumstances!

Actually, the two oboes came over with the greatest consistency and had Bach’s lovely obbligato trio ‘cantabile’ section in the lengthy, opening Sinfonia to Cantata No 42 to themselves with the bassoon inaudible.

Maybe Pamela Thorby’s recorder in the Brandenburg No 2 would have been had she not been at the front of stage where it still sounded recessed but just about audible enough to appreciate her artistry on the instrument.

No problems, however, hearing the estimable playing of David Blackadder on his natural (valveless) trumpet. Cue: the evening’s most important soloists, the four singers taking on Bach’s so-called ‘Lutheran’ Masses No’s 3 and 4.

As the single-voice, SATB choir Mary Bevan, Meg Bragle, Thomas Hobbs and Edward Grint were a superbly balanced, extremely well integrated quartet and generally came over best in the ‘Missa’ No 4 (post interval!), the final Cum Sancto Spiritu being astonishingly brought off!

Matters were a little hit and miss in the arias with projection clarity at a premium as voices were swallowed up in the acoustic. When they were not, it was clear that four first-rate singers with admirable voices were on duty.


A Night at the Opera

Sheffield City Opera stirs into action this coming Saturday, the 12th of March, at St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church with semi-staged scenes from four operas, three duets and some Mozart items.

The semi-staged scenes are costumed and take in the opening chorus and waltz scene from act two of Gounod’s Faust, the finale of act one from Verdi’s Macbeth – the discovery of Duncan’s murder, and the composer’s act two finale from La Traviata – when Alfredo denounces Violetta.

And where would we be without Bizet’s Carmen: the Habanera; factory workers fight in act one; and the Flower Song in act two!

Two of the duets are extremely well known, too: the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and a certain tenor/ baritone duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. The tenor/ baritone duet from the beginning of act four of Puccini’s Bohème adds a nice degree of non-familiarity.

Four pieces by Mozart are the Giovanni/ Zerlina duet, La ci darem le mano from Don Giovanni; Papageno’s Birdcatcher song from The Magic Flute; and, from The Marriage of Figaro, the Countess and Susanna’s Letter Duet and Susanna/ Count duet Crudel! perché finora.

SCO is actually listing the latter as O why are you so cruel? – Cruel one, why until now, is a more literal translation! – because everything is sung in English, except The Pearl Fishers duet (in its original French), under the direction of Robert Webb and with piano accompaniment: Ruth Milsom!

Principal soloists are tenor Karl Reiff and baritone Daniel Sumner appearing as guests, Alexandra Robinson, Rosie Thickett – the stepsisters in SCO’s staging of Massenet’s Cinderella (Cendrillon) last year, here in the very different guises of Lady Macbeth and Carmen, respectively – Mary McCready and Nigel Rothery.

Supporting soloists are Anne Bailey, Mike Willis, Jeremy Craven, Ruth Speare, Rebecca Lambert and Fiona Constantine, who is also the evening’s director.