he KingMonteverdi ‘The Return of Ulysses’
Royal Opera House, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
The Roundhouse. 10 January 2018
After the success of their 2015 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (reviewed here), the Royal Opera House returned with an English language version of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, under the title of ‘The Return of Ulysses’. As its name suggests, the Roundhouse is a large circular building in Camden, North London, built in 1854 by a railway company as the Great Circular Engine House and used, albeit only for a few years, as a maintenance depot. It had a central turntable to switch engines into the surrounding maintenance bays. John Fulljames’s production for the Royal Opera House maintains the link with this central turntable with a doughnut-shaped staging with an outer raised ring for the singers with the orchestra in the central circle. Both rotated, the instrumentalists going very slowly clockwise (a bit slower than the hour hand of a watch) and the singers intermittently rotating anti-clockwise. on their circular stage.
‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries’
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey
12-20 May 2017
After reforming, renaming, and regrowing itself from the long-running Lufthansa Festival, the London Festival of Baroque Music has become, phoenix-like, one of the most important early music festivals in London. Under the banner of ‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries‘, this year’s LFBM used the music of Monteverdi and Telemann, from either end of the Baroque (and both with anniversaries this year) to explore ‘some of the chronological, geographical and stylistic peripheries of Baroque Music’. With one exception, all the concerts were held in the Baroque splendour of St John’s, Smith Square. Continue reading
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 November 2016
Serse was the first opera that the newly formed Early Opera Company performed, some 22 years ago. A well-received recording was released in 2013*, and they returned to it for their latest appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, an ideal space for baroque music. Serse is one of Handel’s more curious operas. Written in 1738 towards the end of his opera-writing career, its innovative compositional style was rather lost on the audience, as was the libretto, with Charles Burney referring to the latter as “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music”. He identified the issue as being that the work contained “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery”, which is exactly what Handel intended. Other commentators noted Handel’s use of many short arias, without the usual convention of the da capo, linking it to the musical style of the many ‘ballad-operas’ that had become the rage. It only managed five performances, but after its modern resurrection has become one of Handel’s best known operas.
The first of the short arias is the opening Ombra mai fù, which became one of Handel’s most famous pieces, albeit under the incorrect name of Handel’s Largo (it is marked Larghetto). I wonder how many people outside the opera-loving world realise that this aria is sung by a clearly dotty King to a tree that he has taken a fancy to? Serse’s dottiness continues throughout the opera, to the bemusement of the other characters. In this concert performance, the only prop Continue reading
Iford Arts: ‘A Fairy Queen’
Early Opera Company, Tim Nelson
Iford Manor. 3 August 2016
Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon, was the home of the Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. He created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classical-fronted mediaeval Iford Manor house, with terraces of formal architectural bits and bobs including a tiny recreated Italian cloister.Since 1996, the cloister has been home to summer opera productions, presented by Iford Arts. Their latest season concluded with ‘A Fairy Queen’ presented by Iford Arts and their regular orchestra from Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company.
Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen is notoriously difficult to perform or stage. The music, designed to accompany the masques that form part of the various acts, only lasts long enough for half a normal concert. Performed complete, with Betterton’s rather awkward version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it seems to lasts for ever. I remember the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival Continue reading
Spitalfields Music: 40th Summer Festival
Spitalfields Music has been an extraordinary musical and community success since its foundation 40 years ago. Starting life with a 1966 concert to help save Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecturally important Christ Church Spitalfields (which was then, unbelievably, under threat of demolition) it soon grew into a ‘Summer Festival of Music’ led by Richard Hickox. Initially under the auspices of the Friends of Christ Church, it became an independent organisation and charity in 1989, setting up their continuing community and education programme two years later. Under the artistic and managerial leadership of the likes of Judith Serota, Michael Berkely, Judith Weir, Jonathan Dove, Diana Burrel, Abigail Pogson and the current Chief Executive, Eleanor Gussman, it has grown into an major musical and community force in London, sharing their passion for music with nearly half and million people, attracting more than 325,000 audience members to events in more than 70 venues in the Spitalfields and Tower Hamlets area. Alongside their Summer and Winter Festivals, they run an enormous Learning & Participation programme involved more than 125,000 people.
They have traditionally focussed on early and contemporary music, commissioning many new works from present day composers to create Continue reading
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn, Sophie Bevan
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 March 2016
Handel: Concerto Grosso Op6/10, Silete Venti; Wassenaer: Concerto 5 from Concerti Armonici; Biber: Battalia a 10; Muffat: Concerto 5 from Armonico Tributo
The players of the Early Opera Company, directed by Christian Curnyn, stepped out of their more usual orchestra pit for an almost instrumental evening of music making at St John’s, Smith Square, with music generally representing the Concerto Grosso format.
Their final work was one of the first examples, albeit billed under the more innocent name of Sonata, with the fifth sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo. These pieces were rehearsed in Corelli’s house during Muffat’s trip to Rome, and were clearly influenced by Corelli’s music and the Italian style. Muffat later spent time with Lully in Paris, and developed a skill in writing music in the French style, before combining the two. But even before then, in this early Italian work, he concludes with a very French Passagaglia, with its distinctive repeated phrases and the use of the opening passage as a refrain, with its lovely little violin motif of rising triplets. In the opening Allemanda we hear a foretaste (or should I say, forehear) of a similar swirling violin motif. With frequent passages for a trio of two violins and cello, set against the full orchestra, this was a Concerto Grosso in all but name. Continue reading
Luigi Rossi: Orpheus
The Royal Opera, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn.
Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 23 October 2015
Luigi Rossi is not a familiar name amongst opera goers but, on the strength of this performance of his opera Orpheus, he deserves to be. This is the last in the Royal Opera House series of five productions based on the Orpheus myth, starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (review here) and reaching a climax with Gluck’s version, reduced to just three characters (review here)
Composed in 1647 (to a libretto by fellow Italian Francesco Buti), Rossi’s Orpheus is generally acknowledged to be the first opera specifically commissioned for France – one outcome of the appointment of an Italian Cardinal as the Prime Minister to Queen Anne of Austria, the Regent to the young Louis XIV, and his attempts to introduce Italian culture to the French Court. Buti’s libretto is a curious affair, adding a bewildering array of miscellaneous characters to the story together with extended Continue reading
One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.
The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.
The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.
The Roundhouse is the latest of the Royal Opera House’s ventures away from Covent Garden, another being the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at The Globe. The circular building (a former engine shed in North London, and one of my haunts in earlier rock concert days) made an impressive, if acoustical tricky, venue for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The audience sit in a 270° arc around the off-centre circular stage with the instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company at the back of the stage.
The Prologue opened with a young and rather sour looking Pluto and his entourage processing down a long sloping gangway onto the stage and up to a raised dais above the orchestra and what turned out to be the entrance to Hades. The gods were accompanied by be-robed priests who turned out to be the three Pastore (billed as ‘Pastors’ – very droll). It had the air of a court house, with the gods sitting in judgement as the scene unfolded below. Musica (who turns into Euridice via an on-stage costume change) sat with Orfeo draped pieta-like across her lap, a touching scene reversed at the end of the evening.The only prop was a simple chair, with the other scenes created by a lively group of 14 child dancers and acrobats (from East London Dance) who created arches through which the protagonists moved, as well as the ripples of the Styx.
This was the first attempt at opera direction by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s former Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and he sensibly resisted the temptation to overly embellish the plot. The sparse setting allowed the focus to be on the music itself, something that the young singers rose to with considerable aplomb. The Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt was a most impressive Orfeo, the clarity of his voice overcoming some slight pronunciation difficulties and the curious spectacle of him being hoisted precariously into the air at the end. Mary Bevan was outstanding as Euridice and Musica, both with her acting and the beauty of her voice. The other members of the cast were of a similar high standard, including the chorus drawn from Guildhall students. However, I was not convinced about casting Susan Bickley as the Messenger. The playing of the Early Opera Company and Christopher Moulds’ musical direction was spot on. There is more I could write about some of the production issues, but will certainly remember this as a fine musical event.