Tosca in Chicago!

Having taken Puccini’s La Bohème round the Graves Gallery a couple of years ago, Opera on Location is turning its attention to the composer’s next big hit in 1900, Tosca, at a different location!

The newly renovated Abbeydale Picture House on Abbeydale Road, to be precise, where it will be played out on three nights, the 25th, 26th and 27th of August.

For the production, the opera’s director Louise Pymer has taken the work out of its Rome setting and transplanted it in prohibition-era America with Tosca and her beloved Mario caught up in the middle of gang warfare and Scarpia is a corrupt detective.

Opera on Location describe the Abbeydale cinema, which first opened its doors in 1920 and has taken on numerous guises since closing them in 1975, as the “perfect setting” for the opera’s production, one the reasons clearly being its original use, showing films!

The performance will be using visual images created by filmmaker Dave Alexander Smith of various Sheffield localities, an exercise supported by the Sheffield Town Trust.

Although set in 1920s America, the intention is to draw on aspects of the notorious Sheffield gang wars during the same decade, causing the city to be dubbed ‘little Chicago’ at the time.

How a number of aspects of the ‘original’ Tosca will be handled remains to be seen!

Andrea Tweedale plays the jealous prima donna and gets to sing the famous Love and Music, the usual English translation of Vissi d’Arte, and OoL joint founder Gareth Lloyd is Mario Cavaradossi who has a couple of celebrated arias of his own.

Scarpia is taken by Phil Wilcox, involved in the Sheffield Bach Choir’s recent performance of Merrie England and, even more recently, was a member of the Buxton Festival opera chorus.

He also covered one the roles, Juliet’s father in Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera, portrayed in the production as a cold, murderous individual which means the evil Scarpia should right up his street if his services were called on!


Elgar’s Falstaff

Elgar’s most undervalued work gets something of a rare performance this coming Monday, the 1st of August, at Sheffield Cathedral – Falstaff!

It is a strange fact that were it not for youth orchestras, it would be even more scarcely heard than it is and, as if to prove the point, Monday’s outing for the piece is in the company of the excellent City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra.

Dating from 1913, Elgar declared it his finest orchestral piece. Leaving aside a couple of well-known concertos, with one of them still to come when he composed Falstaff, it is certainly his most virtuosic!

Commissioned by the Leeds Festival, the composer designated the 30-plus minute work a symphonic study. Another description could be a highly programmatic symphonic poem after a Liszt, Dvořák, or Strauss.

You can’t help wondering, in fact, if he had the latter’s Till Eulenspiegel flitting through his mind when he was writing it!

Falstaff’s most famous musical incarnation is in Verdi’s last opera, but Elgar did not visualise Shakespeare’s ‘fat knight’ as an outright buffoon so steered clear of The Merry Wives of Windsor on which the opera, and those by others (Salieri, Balfe) are based.

Elgar’s character is the Falstaff of Henry IV, Parts One and Two; hence, much less a figure of fun and he outlined the course of the score in The Musical Times in 1913.

1  Falstaff and Prince Henry   2  Eastcheap – Gadshill – The Boar’s Head. Revelry and sleep – Dream interlude: Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (poco allegretto)   Falstaff’s March – The Return through Gloucestershire: Interlude: Gloucestershire. Shallow’s Orchard (allegretto) – The new king – The hurried ride to London   King Henry V’s progress – The repudiation of Falstaff, and his death

Despite the composer’s divisions, the work is continuous and, if you need reminding, Prince Henry is Prince Hal, later Henry V.


Review: Variable Vaughan Williams – super Schumann!

James Gilchrist’s recital of song cycles by Schumann and Vaughan Williams with pianist Anna Tilbrook as part of the Buxton Festival was generally well received by a near capacity audience in the Pavilion Arts Centre.

In truth, Schumann, especially the Heine Liederkreis, Op 24, came off better than Vaughan Williams – his nine settings from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel.

More often than not, a baritone sings them and it wasn’t difficult to hear why on occasion, not least in the most famous one, The Vagabond, which needs more robust delivery than Gilchrist’s essentially lyric tenor voice could muster.

Likewise, the second verse of Youth and Love; while preceding it, The Roadside Fire was a touch on the fragile side. The more reflective In Dreams and contrasting The Infinite Shining Heavens fared much better, and Whither Must I Wander had a nice sense of vulnerable forlornness.

World-weariness surfaced, a trifle understated perhaps, and vocal nuance was there a-plenty but the voice sounded more comfortable by and large singing Schumann, with considerable physical animation!

Heine’s ‘traveller’ in Dichterliebe is a much more intense individual and Gilchrist gave full rein to the fact, although he did rather overdo the 10th and 13th songs in the name of subtlety.

The earlier Heine cycle, the Liederkries, with less-opportunity for ‘Sturm und Drang’ utterance, was beautifully done. Often deeply felt, the unfailing musicianship of both performers could only be admired, Tilbrook’s pianism throughout being as flawless as it was mellifluous.


Review: White Camelia

After her highly impressive Juliet in the Buxton Festival staging of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Sarah-Jane Brandon’s involvement in an already appealing recital, White Camelia, had a greater sense of ‘must be there’!

A joint affair with baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist Audrey Hyland, it carried the subtitle The Story of a Courtesan and consisted of 16 songs punctuated, though not always by readings from an unspecified source.

Hazarding a guess, from Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias – The Lady of the Camillias, the play (the basis of Verdi’s La Traviata), not the novel as the readings (in English) were in the first person?

The well-chosen songs, reflecting the situation when Armand’s (Verdi’s Afredo) father turns up to drive a wedge into the bliss he has found with Marguerite (Violetta), were generally familiar but not always.

An early Rachmaninov song, Ah, forsake me not! was powerfully sung (in Russian) by Brynmor John. In contrast, he also offered a beautifully sung account of Quilter’s Music, when soft voices die.

The often heard Morgen by Richard Strauss, fabulously sung by Brandon without affectation, was offset with a lesser-known song by him, Ach lieb, ich muss nun scheiden (Alas, my love, I must part from you).

The soprano also delivered idiomatic accounts of a contrasting pair of de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folksongs, Asturiana and Polo, while turning in a spectacular rendering of the Gavotte from Massenet’s Manon.

A couple of joint items that can hardly be described as regularly heard were a charming duet by Schumann, Ich bin dein Baum (I am your tree) and a melodrama by Schubert, Abschied von der Erde, actually for one voice but here spoken by two.

Translated, albeit not literally, as Farewell to the World it was a fitting ending to the recital at which Audrey Hyland covered herself in glory playing a stylistically wide range of piano accompaniments.


Review: I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Buxton Festival’s staging of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi – The Capulets and the Montagues –unveiled the night after Beethoven’s Leonore can be summed more quickly than that: outstanding!

The Italian composer knew how to write opera, unlike his near contemporary German counterpart!

The only area of any real contention is the ending which sees Capellio, the Capulet leader, stabbing his daughter, Giulietta (Juliet), to death instead – as everyone knows – of her killing herself to die with Romeo. Why?

What is, or was wrong with Bellini’s ending? Capellio appears on the scene, finds the lovers dead and asks ‘who has done this?’ to which the chorus answer with one voice, ‘You!’

No doubt the production’s director Harry Fehr, who sets the action in modern day Italy with the two factions as opposing gun-toting, knife-wielding armies, had his reasons beyond mere mischief.

Both Stephanie Marshall, an entirely convincing Romeo in every respect, and Sarah-Jane Brandon, a far from shrinking violet as Giulietta, offer stunning singing of not always easy music. Bellini’s bel canto lines are always smooth and firm and meaningfully delivered with panache.

The two voices blend superbly, as well. Performances that would grace any international opera stage, in short.

Luis Gomes has the necessary vocal weapons, too for Tebaldo and Jonathan Best looked and sounded more comfortable as Capellio than he did as Don Fernando 24 hours earlier.

Julian Tovey does what he can for the rather ungrateful role of Lorenzo and, once again, there is super singing from the chorus – the men at least (the women are silent members of the two armies) – and superior playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra for an admirably idiomatic conductor in Justin Doyle.


Review: Leonore

There are those who claim that Beethoven’s Leonore is a better opera than the one it became nine years later, Fidelio!

He clearly wasn’t happy with it in 1805 because he swiftly and radically revised it, reducing its three acts to two in the process, before it was revived four months later, which in itself must say something!

Buxton Festival’s staging of the ‘first Fidelio’ plays the first two acts together creating one Wagnerian length act, preceded by the drawn out longuers of the overture we know as Leonore No 2.

The difference is that Wagner, or Richard Strauss for that matter could sustain interest over 105 minutes, Beethoven in 1805 couldn’t. Perhaps splitting the two acts would have helped, albeit making a long evening longer!

It was a brave decision to perform the opera in its original German, especially as there is so much spoken dialogue, but it also enables the music to be heard in its pure state without the vagaries of a sung translation – there are English side titles!

Musically, it gave the opera a chance under Stephen Barlow’s spacious reading of the score and the augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra’s exemplary playing of it.

The festival artistic director also knows where to find the right singers, particularly potential stars among younger generation artists and there were are at least three here, including two impressive embryo Wagnerian voices, Kirstin Sharpin and David Danholt.

Leonore and Florestan, respectively, the latter must have been longing to sing the final version of the character’s big act two – here act three – recit and aria, instead of Beethoven’s first, decidedly inferior forerunner of it.

Hrólfur Sæmundsson is a suitably imposing Pizarro, relishing his ‘extra’ music along with Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! one of the two numbers that survived unscathed in Fidelio, the other being the Leonore/ Florestan duet O namenlose Freude.

Scott Wilde brings all his experience and a true black bass to bear as an urbane Rocco. Further young talent can be heard as Marzelline and Jacquino, Kristy Swift and Stuart Laing, while chorus work is terrific.

The staging is unusual in this day and age. Director Stephen Medcalf has left it as ‘Beethoven would have seen it’ – period-costumed! Well, not quite as he would have seen it perhaps!

He would have recognised himself in the ‘dumb show’ played out to the overture, but someone else can attempt to explain the metaphors, symbolism and bizarre happenings, such as Fidelio/ Leonore playing a violin as he duets with Marzelline, ladled on the production.


Review: Britten’s War Requiem

An outstanding account of Britten’s multi-layered, titanic plea for peace and reconciliation from the Sheffield Oratorio Chorus and its music director Alan Eost at Sheffield Cathedral.

A hugely augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra with, off left in St George’s Chapel the actual chamber ensemble Britten called for, turned in absolutely superb playing and added in no small measure to the overall success of the performance.

It would nonsense to pretend all was perfect. Chorally, shortcomings surfaced every so often with a lack of projection in quiet passages. Vocal lines may be hushed but they still need projecting and it was patently obvious that the chorus was able to do it.

Viz. Pie Jesu Domine at the end of the Dies Irae was magically wrought – with word clarity, too!

Near-perpetual niggle out of the way, often stunning singing from the Oratorio Chorus left no better example than the Sanctus/ Benedictus section with the soprano soloist off-stage – a clever piece of stage management!

Laura Mitchell, the soprano, was magnificent and shirked nothing given that she does not have a dramatic soprano voice which Britten wrote the music for. Be that as it may, a rock-steady, firm technique meant she got all the notes, and gave them full value!

Mark Wilde tended to blow a little hot and cold when it came to clarity of diction in the tenor’s music, being at his best singing Owen’s words in the Agnus Dei

He also generally stood up well when singing with ‘fellow soldier’ Ross Ramgobin, an expressive young baritone with a voice of true quality if ever there was one.

Alan Eost’s architectural grasp of the score was wholly admirable and the transitions between the three performing levels, Neil Taylor directing the chamber orchestra and Joshua Hales the Sheffield Cathedral Choristers (children’s voices), were impeccably smooth throughout.