Posts Tagged ‘benjamin britten’

Cooper’s London

March 1, 2016


Mel snapshot 19



Coming Up, In and Out of London…

For imminent highlights, don quixotemy instincts tell me that first and foremost I must get tickets to see the new adaptation of Don Quixote appearing soon at the RSC. It plays 25 February until 21 May in The Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon and has definitely raised my hopes. The novel’s adaptation will be by James Fenton, whose The Orphan of Zhao in 2012 is still one of the best and most memorable shows that the RSC has commissioned. The director is Angus Jackson, whose imaginative staging of Oppenheimer I saw in 2015 was one of the most original, intelligent and dazzling realizations of a script imaginable. Its sheer theatricality is still with me; as are several of the spot-on performances that Jackson got from his actors. Actor david threlfallDavid Threlfall is playing the mad, appealing Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the original quixotic hero. Have you seen him on TV in the UK version of Shameless? He’s a reliable and dedicated character actor whose popularity goes back to playing Smyke in the eight-hour-long RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby in the early 1980s—a performance that is still available on DVD. Add to that the fact that the novel of Don Quixote is a wonderful but ridiculously long and varied text; it will be fascinating to see which bits Fenton chooses to include. Not long ago the RSC did a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s lost play based on Don Quixote, Cardenio. I am very excited about this project, which is in rehearsal already.

Looking further ahead, I am particularly keen on two of the many major opera and music festivals that arrive every summer. Gaining repute as the new Glyndebourne, this year’s just-released programme at the Longborough Festival in rural Gloucestershire is its most ambitious yet. Several audience favorites are returning among four operas: Handel’s baroque opera Alcina will be jeremy silverconducted by the adept and youthful Jeremy Silver who is working for the third consecutive year with the same production team and with young professionals early in their careers to give them a springboard. They have already shown that they can be both cheeky and moving in this repertory; and there will even be a performance at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge on 4 August.

As with Glyndebourne, you want to get to the original venue if you can to experience the full pleasure of the place; they provide a show that includes time to wander around lovely grounds and have a long interval for dinner after an early start.

longboroughTannhauser should be powerful in such an intimate venue. John Treleavan and Neal Cooper are sharing the title role; the rest of the cast looks interesting, and the music director of the festival, Anthony Negus, is conducting. He has already been highly praised by the press and audiences for his previous Wagner performances at Longborough and has a solid reputation. Conductor Robert Houssard leads another established production team for a Marriage of Figaro that will star baritone Benjamin Bevan as the Count and the Australian baritone Grant Doyle (formerly a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) in his role debut as the impertinent valet. The wonderful Norwegian soprano Beate Mordall and England’s Lucy Hall are sharing the role of Susanna. Finally, lee bissettLee Bissett, who is a huge favourite with the audiences at Longborough after taking on Isolde last year, will return to sing Janacek’s Jenufa.

The Glyndebourne Festival, that mother of all summer al fresco festivals in the UK, runs this year from 21 May to 28 August and needs very little introduction from me. Whatever you find still availableeven if you think you do not like that opera—just buy the damned tickets and go for the experience. Established in his stately home by glyndebourneJohn Christie in the 1930s to do Mozart in its original scale (in every sense of the word), many of its productions have been mythical from the very start; much of its work has been broadly influential, and many young artists have gone on from there to important international careers: Janet Baker, who started in the chorus and ended up as Orfeo in Gluck’s opera, among them. (According to legend, they nearly fired Montserrat Caballe, and Roberto Alagna scored an early success as Rodolfo.) Today’s casts are just as riveting and, in a purpose-built theatre, the productions are almost invariably innovative and thought-provoking, while maintaining the highest musical and production standards. Probably all this is due to several factors, two of which must be the long rehearsal periods and being able to work in a rural setting away from the ususal stresses of major opera houses.

For me a highlight of this summer will be more Wagner in a more intimate venue: the revival of the famous David McVicar Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Gerald Finlay as a youthful, sonorous and exceptionally moving Hans Sachs and Michael Schade as Walter. The new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville draws me like a magnet to see danielle de nieseDaniele de Niese undertake the role of Rosina with the veteran Alessandro Corbelli as her venal guardian, Dr Bartolo. In the past, Glyndebourne has had Victoria de los Angeles and Maria Ewing as memorable Rosinas and I am confident that de Niese will be added to that list. And among the other treats I am particularly delighted to see there is to be a revival of
midsummer night's dreamPeter Hall’s magical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare set to music by Benjamin Britten) from the 1981 festival.

There will, of course, also be the Proms in London throughout July and August and early September; and there are the interesting productions coming up at Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park, as well as opera in Holland Park. More of all that anon. But meantime, a reminder to start booking if you fancy a trip around the countryside with a little bit of culture as well. The Brits really do this kind of thing brilliantly.

Cooper’s London

November 23, 2013

Music, Books, TV, CDs, DVDs,




All Ye Need to Know

Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)

Well-researched, fairly balanced in its judgements paul kildea 2(mostly), advocating the “greatness” of Britten while fully aware of the flaws and difficulties in both the man and the works: in this hundredth anniversary year of Benjamin Britten, this is the outstanding background read about Britten you should seek out. Paul Kildea sets bookBritten firmly in the context of his times, arguing that Britten was a far more political man than most people consider, and that his politics influenced his choices of subjects and texts considerably (as well as his choice of lifestyle).

Britten was a pacifist from an early age, a homosexual in an era when it was illegal to be “gay”, a socialist in many of his beliefs, a person interested in community and small-town life more than in the glories and opportunities of a large metropolis. The subtexts of his operas, church parables and song cycles take on extra layers of meaning and purpose as you read Kildea’s analyses. 

The author shows Britten as a troubled man who had to navigate between his Scylla of a conscience and his sexuality, both potentially offensive to the society in which he lived (that could have had him rejected as a pariah); and the Charybdis of the magnetic pull of an Establishment that was desperate for a new, great British talent in music after World War II. This book is well-written and well-researched; its portraits of people important to Britten come vividly to life:  the composer Frank Bridge; Peter Pears; W. H. Auden; the Mayer family in Amityville during Britten and Pears’s sojourn in the USA; Rostropovich, Janet Baker; and even Gypsy Rose Lee sevenmiddaghstreet(with whom Britten and others shared a house in Brooklyn for a time in 1940)*. All are convincing and make the case for their influence on Britten. But rather than quote the anecdotes, I’d prefer to allow you the pleasure of discovery! 

I found Benjamin Britten completely captivating and inhabited its pages with pleasure. When I reluctantly turned the last page, I wanted to return to the music as well as to my history books about the low, dishonest twentieth century.  A good case in point is the Big Controversy raging at this moment around this very biography: Kildea claims there is evidence that Britten’s heart condition didn’t come from his childhood bout of pneumonia but was a result of an undiagnosed and untreated syphilis that he probably picked up from Pears during their time in the States. The jury is still out on that one as rebuttals and counter-claims fly back and forth; but it in no way diminishes the impact, intelligence or usefulness of this bernsteinbook. Leonard Bernstein once said of Britten: “He had dark gears grinding away in the background, not really meshing. On the surface everything in his life and in his music seemed cool and balanced but underneath he was at odds with the world. He was often difficult and lonely.” Bernstein thought that was the key to the man and to his art; and Kildea’s book certainly convinces one of  how well it fits. 

More Brittening

With the hundredth anniversary of Big Ben this year have come (along with Kildea’s book), some major recordingsre-releases that are as good a place as any to start if you actually want to familiarize yourself with the sounds of his music: three box sets that have come my way are especially recommended. 

Britten-peras-287x300Of course, you could do worse than simply going back to the old Decca recordings featuring Britten himself, so Decca has transferred to DVD some historic performances from BBC television.  Peter Grimes was a TV studio production done in 1969 in glorious colour, with Peter Pears playing the role that had been written for him 25 years before for the very last time.  It celebrates the great breakthrough that Britten was felt to inspire in England after WWII. It’s a strong, evocative performance with the inimitable Heather Harper as Ellen Orford and Bryan Drake as a convincing and sympathetic Captain Balstrode. 

Here, Britten is conducting, and one can argue that this is the most authentic performance you can see. Certainly it’s one to get to know for comparison with all the performances on stage and TV since then. Equally historic is the 1966 legendary BBC film of Billy Budd set in a fully rigged warship that was recreated in a TV studio. It was probably the most ambitious television opera production up to that time and is conducted superbly by the brilliant Charles Mackerras who, despite falling out with the composer, had a great feeling for this music. Again, Pears is playing a role written for him by BrittenCaptain Vere; Billy Budd is portrayed by Peter Glossop, and Michael Langdon is a sinister, Dickensian Claggart, with John Shirley-Quirk as Mr. Redburn. 

These are legendary names in British opera for those of us of a certain age, and one cannot deny the nostalgia of the performances for the Baby Boomer generation, as well as the validity of the sublime acting and singing.  And there’s more: the original TV broadcast of Britten’s only opera written for television beggar's opera(Owen Wingrave, with Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon, Nigel Douglas, Sylvia Fisher, and Heather Harper, all creating their roles for the first time, and Britten conducting again), and Britten’s hugely successful recreation of John Gay’sThe Beggar’s Opera.

Decca has also released Britten conducting Mozart’s Idomeneo. These are  important historical documents and also illuminating productions of the pieces in question.  But for me the best and most capitivating DVD is the one featuring tenor Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (as one of the most sensitive and accomplished pianist/accompanists of his era) performing Schubert’s Winterreise and Britten’s own folk-song arrangements. These men did both English song and German lieder to a turn, and though Pears is past his finest vocal hour, the sensitivity, intelligence and sheer musicality of all that he and Britten achieve in these performances make them valuable. Indeed Britten, like his friend Leonard Bernstein, was a triple threat: a composer, a conductor and an accompanist for the ages. These are available as a 7-DVD box set on Decca 074 3366, or can be bought individually. They are a “must-own” for everyone who loves or even just admires Britten.

The Essential Benjamin Britten, released on Warner Classics is another interesting box. With its acquisition of EMI, Warners has now been able to put together some Britten_Penelope_0927490102amazing performances in this 10-CD and 4-DVD box set. Among the highlights: the violin concertos played by Daniel Hope; the War Requiem with Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic; Janet Baker’s definitive recording of the 1943 work The Rescue of Penelope; and a fine Billy Budd with Thomas Hampson as Billy, conducted by Kent Nagano

The greatest attraction of this box is the DVD selection. Peter Grimes is from the Royal Opera House stage with Sir Colin Davis conducting the great Jon Vickers in one of his iconic roles, and with Norman Bailey as Captain Balstrode, Heather Harper (once again) as Ellen, and John Tomlinson and Forbes Robinson among the other singers.  The Elijah Moshinsky production is deservedly celebrated, and Vickers makes Peter Grimes into a tragic figure as heroic, tormented, and pitiable as his Otello. If you can only ever see one Peter Grimes, this is the one.  

Also from the ROH, the ballet of The Prince of the princePagodas with the brilliant Darcey Bussell as Princess Rose and Anthony Dowell as the Emperor leading a very strong cast in a very strong production. Glyndebourne come the definitive Peter Hall productions, conducted by Bernard Haitink with total charm and sensitivity, of Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’re at all interested either in Britten or in strong opera productions of a generation ago, and you think of the  10 CDs as a kind of bonus, it’s worth acquiring this celebratory Benjamin Britten budget set for those four wonderful productions now preserved on DVD alone. 

The Essential Benjamin Britten
10 CD + 4 DVD   Warner Classics 2564 64756

Meantime, the EMI label has released three box sets gathering together some of the finest Britten performances in their archive.  My favourite is the Choral Works and Opera for Children, which make a great supplement and compliment to the Warner’s box mentioned above. The War Requiem is conducted by Simon Rattle with dazzling insight. His soloists are Elisabeth Söderström, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen. The Spring Symphony by Andre Previn;  and a wonderful collection of hymns, carols, and lesser-known early works as well as The LittleSweep and the delicious Noyes Fludde (the one which used strung coffee cups as a xylophone!)[] are all performances worth having. In fact, there isn’t a duffer  in the lot, and it’s a very English Britten who emerges; a man devoted to small forces and community work, as well as the contentious Britten, the pacifist of the War Requiem. This is a Britten and a Britain well worth getting to know.

Benjamin Britten: Choral Works and Opera for Children
EMI 7 CDs  0 15156 2

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