Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Classical Opera Goes Virtual

 

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Tim Benjamin is not the first composer to use digital sound and music in opera. Modern opera is all about experimentation and if you are a small opera company with constrained budgets, virtual is the way to go if you want a chorus in the score!

But this is not quite Tim Benjamin’s story, whose new opera, The Fire of Olympus is a contemporary reimagining of Prometheus’s story of stealing fire from Zeus and of Prometheus’s relationship with Pandora.

Thanks to an outreach programme funded by the Classics Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the Midlands of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with his répétiteur and managed to amass 1,000 amateur singers! They turned out to be a very diverse crowd in the workshops but all of them embraced their role as Vox Populi in the classically-inspired opera Benjamin had written.

Once back from his UK wanderings, Benjamin assembled his recordings, comprising of song and the spoken word. In the properly staged 2hr opera you will be able to hear the finished product in surround sound.

I got a taster of what is to come the other evening when I went to listen to Tim Benjamin talk about the project and to hear his soloists perform the highlights.

Tim Benjamin was affable and engaging describing his journey into the musical genre. He had already written an opera on Emily Davison’s life (the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse). However it was his oratorio, Herakles, which got him thinking about Prometheus (if you know your mythology you will know that Heracles freed Prometheus from his eternal torment of having his liver pecked out by an eagle). The present opera backtrack to Prometheus’s story, before his spat with Zeus.

Four singers sat down in a row on stage. Over the speakers came a crescendoing babble (the chorus). Prometheus stood up. Sophie Dicks in a pulled-down hoodie, men’s shoes and trousers, was highly convincing as a man. She sang the mezzo-soprano role with conviction, power and intensity. The same could be said of Elspeth Marrow, singing the other ‘trouser-role’, that of of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Both of the young women’s handling of the Handel-inspired score was impressive. So too were baritone, Robert Glyndwr Garland, Zeus and President of Olympus (the parallels to be drawn with Donald Trump are clear!) and soprano, Charlotte Hoather, singing Pandora. 

The libretto, sung in English, worked well mostly except when the aim was to shock and to bring us up to today’s zeitgeist. Pandora singing ‘A fuck is just a fuck’ jarred because she looked so demure! But maybe it is supposed to as at the end of the aria she is crying out for revolution!

What was really inspired was the weaving of the Midlands’s chorus into the opera. When Zeus sings in the finale, ‘What is done is done… The fire will spread..’ You know we are all doomed!

What started out as an outreach programme for Tim Benjamin, has developed into a staged opera. In Brexit Britain composers are having to be more inventive in the way they raise money for their projects. Perhaps this is a good thing and will bring new blood and fresh ideas to a genre which seemed to be running out of steam not so long ago. No longer.

KH

For more information: https://radiusopera.org/productions/the-fire-of-olympus/

Olafur Eliasson’s Show: Pioneering and Powerful.

 

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Beauty 1993

A trip to the Tate Modern almost always involves me taking a left at the Turbine Hall where I know I will end up in familiar art territory, one which preferably involves paint! Going right on the other hand, into the Blavatnik Building, constitutes more of an art departure for me: tech art and design installations, dating from the 1990s, is often a step too far, but I figure that if I don’t try these things, I will age and get more set in my ways a lot faster!

And of course it was Olafur Eliasson’s solo show I had come to see, the artist who brought the sun to the Tate Modern in 2003.  HIs construct, required hundreds of lamps and lit up the Turbine Hall for 6 months. Amazingly it attracted 2 million visitors, most of whom returned many times. They had not only come to bask in the sun’s light but to lie back and gaze narcissistically at themselves and at others, in a large mirror installed above their heads. This installation not only transformed the austere Turbine hall into a friendlier place, but it also initiated another type of art, one which brought total strangers together.

Having listened to the Danish-Icelandic artist speak so eloquently about his latest artistic projects, his concerns for the environment and his love of human connection on radio, I wanted to see the art and design that accompanied the talk.

I walked out of the lifts floor 2 and was assailed by harsh, yellow strip lighting at the entrance to the show and also circled two multifaceted rotating orbs projecting their calm, mesh-like shadows onto the ceiling. The bulk of Eliasson’s work is inspired by the natural world, the earth and the elements such as light and water. Also maths. I entered a dimly lit room and peered into a vast glass cabinet. Hundreds of exquisitely fashioned, intricate, geometrical sculptures of paper, wood metal, marked Elliason’s collaboration with architect and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), all prototypes for some of his architectural installations which are to be seen throughout the world. 

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Model Room 2003

The rooms following attested to Eliasson’s continual love affair with natural phenomena and preoccupation with climate change.

Room 7 entitled ‘Glacial works’ particularly impressed and moved me. Eliasson’s childhood experiences in Iceland and his preoccupation with the melting of glaciers has led him to produce Glacial spherical flare 2019. The circular dish on the wall, made up of rock particles created by glacial erosion, is composed of gorgeous green, gold, ruby disks. In the same room a sculpture entitled The presence of absence pavilion 2019, was a bronze cast of a ball of ice now disappeared. The sculpture was both delicate and devastating in its message.

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Glacial spherical flare 2019. (Dark shadows are my reflection!)

Eliasson is also interested in our perception of our world and our senses. Many of his installations use reflections, inversions, after-images and shifting colours. Water installation, Beauty 1993 (see Heading Image) took us into a moist cave-like interior. Iridescent violets and pinks flitted across the fine water spray. As we moved around the room, the rainbow colours came and went.

The colours of the spectrum also featured in Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010, as our pink, violet, green, yellow silhouettes were projected onto a wall and moved with us. I was pleased to have sped past the convoy of journalists on the guided tour, who were told not to linger in the space simply because they would have blotted out everyone’s silhouettes! The room works best if you are three at the most! I am not sure how this show is going to be policed as this was not the only room where numbers need to be controlled.

Two simple pieces moved me the most and belonged together: a burning candle on a small, circular mirror entitled – as I grew up in solitude and silence 1991. The other a tall ‘rain’ window where rivulets of water streamed down continuously. Side by side they conjured up a slightly dull but peaceful rain-washed afternoon in childhood when one is left to flick through a book. This is probably Eliasson’s child growing up in Iceland but it is also all of our childhoods.

I found this an inspiring exhibition. Nothing felt arbitrary or gimmicky as it could be with this type of modern art probably because the craftsmanship was a consequence of years of experimental work, discussion and artistic collaboration. It had soul and meaning. And, there is no doubt about it – I felt connected to others viewing the works, especially in the fog tunnel. 

In the last few metres of the Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010 installation, I nearly knocked over a young man with a notepad. He looked up in surprise at seeing me suddenly appear through the fog. ‘I’ve been here for quite some time,’ he quipped. He had just heard me talking to a fellow woman traveller in the tunnel about heaven and end of life experiences. I laughed nervously, now desperate to get out of there! The fog tunnel is not for the claustrophobic!

A thought-provoking and beautiful show and good one to experience with friends and family. But try to go outside peak viewing times as the queues may be great for certain installations.

 

 

KH

 

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on at the Tate Modern until 5th January 2020.

The Strange World of Félix Vallotton

 

What exactly is the subject of the painting ‘Le Mensonge/The Lie’ by the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (above)? A couple in evening dress are locked in an embrace in a plush interior. Yet all is not what it seems. Who’s the one being economical with the truth? The woman’s scarlet dress and serpentine pose alone should start alarm bells ringing and she does indeed seem to be whispering something in the man’s ear. On the other hand, the man’s nonchalant body language and complacent smirk suggest that more is happening here than he’s letting on. Or is Vallotton making a more general point about everyday falsehoods in relations between the sexes? And would we otherwise gather any of this without knowing the painting’s title?

Paris-based Vallotton (1865-1925) is little known in this country and the Royal Academy’s new show aims to set this right. The setting for his work is a fin-de-siècle world of furtive liaisons and forbidden desires, with a dash of Grand Guignol added the mix. He was friendly with, and exhibited alongside, ‘Nabi’ artists like Édouard Vuillard, and it’s almost as if the family from a cosy Vuillard interior had wandered into a Gaston Leroux shocker. The title of one of Vallotton’s paintings is ‘The Red Room’ but change the colour scheme and it could be the setting for Leroux’s ‘Mystery of the Yellow Room’. The associations aren’t merely literary – it’s no surprise that the novelist Julian Barnes is a big fan – but cinematic too: you’re reminded of the work of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock and, in fact, the RA is screening Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ in tandem with this exhibition.

 

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Félix Vallotton, Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L’Argent), 1898. Xylograph, 25 x 32.3 cm. Ville de Genève, Musées d’art et d’histoire, Don Lucien Archinard. © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

 

Vallotton is probably seen at his best in his prints and small-scale works. During the 1890s he mostly made a living as an illustrator, working for the literary magazine ‘La Revue Blanche’. The series he did called ‘Intimacies’, with titles like ‘Money’, ‘Irreparable’ and ‘The Confession’, dissects the private lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie in ways that to Julian Barnes suggests ‘deep emotional dissonance’. In the process Vallotton played an important part in the revival of the woodcut, using a pared-down style with strong contrasts of black and white, influenced, as so many of his contemporaries were, by Japanese graphic art. How much did he also owe to Aubrey Beardsley? A lot of their work seems rather similar to me. There’s a print here of a nude on a bed playing with a cat which I thought at first was a Beardsley (who, incidentally, will be the subject of a show at Tate Britain next year).

 

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Félix Vallotton, Bathing on a Summer Evening (Le Bain au soir d’été), 1892-93. Oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich. Gottfried Keller Foundation, Federal Office of Culture, Bern. Acquired 1965. © Kunsthaus Zürich

 

In 1898 Vallotton married a wealthy widow, which freed him from financial worries, often a mixed blessing, creatively speaking, for artists. It was the beginning of a slippery slope. He decided to concentrate on the female nude, which meant, in essence, variations on Manet, Courbet and, above all, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Statuesque and inert, they’re fairly typical of the Paris Salon in its dotage. He also did portraits. But compare Vallotton’s humdrum portrait of Gertrude Stein (1907) – she called him ‘a Manet for the impecunious’ – to Picasso’s penetrating characterisation of her, painted two years earlier. By the end of this show I was tired of Vallotton’s acid palette, those icy nudes, the relentless stagecraft and, quite frankly, the vast quality gap between him and his idol Ingres. The final room, featuring his late still lives and landscapes, isn’t so much disquieting as just plain odd.

All the same, this is far from a duff exhibition, and if you enjoy your art with a frisson, you’ll certainly get one here. The RA in recent years has done yeoman’s work in shedding light on Honoré Daumier, James Ensor and other under-appreciated, oddball talents. And you’ll leave this show feeling that you’ve learnt enough about an artist who, while a suitable subject for the Sackler Galleries, is never going to make it to the main galleries downstairs.

 

NM

 

Félix Vallotton, Painter of Disquiet at the Royal Academy of Arts to 29 September 2019

Header image: Félix Vallotton, The Lie (Le Mensonge), 1897. Oil on cardboard, 24 x 33.4 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298. Photography: Mitro Hood

 

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Félix Vallotton, Red Peppers (Poivrons rouges), 1915. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

 

Pietà by Richard Blackford – world premiere at Poole Lighthouse

Pietà by Richard Blackford

Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-sopranno

Stephen Gadd, baritone

Amy Dickson, saxophone

with Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Carr


The Stabat Mater, a Medieval hymn which portrays Mary’s suffering as Christ’s mother during his Crucifixion, has been set to music by numerous composers, most notably Pergolesi, Schubert, Dvořák, Pärt and Macmillan. In this new setting, Pietà, a co-commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and St. Albans Choral Society, British composer Richard Blackford interweaves the text of the Stabat Mater with poems from the ‘Requiem’ cycle by Anna Akhmatova, whose husband was taken away and ‘disappeared’ by Stalin’s KGB; her son was also arrested and she feared she would never see him again. In our troubled, turbulent times, contemporary Pietàs are tragically all too familiar – refugee parents desperately cradling babies and children, mourning mothers in war-torn towns and cities, the anger and grief of victims of tragedies like the Manchester Arena terrorist attack or the Grenfell Tower fire…. Through the settings of Akhmatova’s poetry, Blackford makes the Stabat Mater a universal reflection on grief and loss – and the attendant rage, pain and incomprehension.

Blackford chose the title after seeing Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in Rome, and like the sculpture, his new work encompasses grief, rage and sorrow with tenderness, poignancy and, ultimately, beauty and hope. The work is scored for string orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, mezzo-soprano, baritone and solo saxophone. While the chorus and soloists present the main narrative, the pain and grief of Mary and Anna Ahkmatova, the saxophone provides a third, abstract voice, the voice of every grieving mother.

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Michelangelo’s Pietà (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome)

Pietà was preceded in the first half by Faure’s Requiem which was given a meditative, other-worldly performance by the excellent BSO Chorus under Gavin Carr, with soloists Issie Curchin and Stephen Gadd. This provided a wonderful foil to Blackford’s music, which is intellectual and sophisticated, yet accessible in its use of carefully-crafted melody and counterpoint. Rooted in tonality and modality, Pietà is characterised by rhythmic dynamism, breadth of expression and lush textures, redolent of Janácek. The use of a children’s choir (in the fifth movement of the work) is a nod to another of Blackford’s main influences – Benjamin Britten – and provides an episode of innocence and sweetness in this grief-scorched narrative.

With powerful, operatic singing by mezzo Jennifer Johnston and baritone Stephen Gadd, a fine, emotionally engaging performance by the BSO and BSO Chorus (whose intonation, timing and precision was impressive), the entire work has a filmic visual quality with its clear narrative and highly descriptive scoring – tumultuous strings, passionate dramatic climaxes, ‘snapping’ pizzicato in the cellos (to represent Christ’s flagellation), jagged syncopated rhythms, an acapella movement of intense concentration and beauty. Organised in three parts, Pietà moves from grief and rage to redemption and hope via nine distinct movements. The obligato saxophone, eloquently played by Amy Dickson, provides a unifying link between the movements, initially haunting, mournful and timeless, evocative of an ancient shawm, and later calm and tender as the music moves towards its hopeful, redemptive close. Blackford chose the soprano saxophone to create “a modern inistrumental dimension, very close to the sound of the human voice”.

This arresting, emotionally-intense and accessible work for choir and orchestra receives its London premiere at Cadogan Hall on 19th October. A recording on the Nimbus Label is expected very soon.


Meet the Artist interview with Richard Blackford

 

Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

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Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28EZ2l3yZg

I had never heard of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art until I set foot in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Founded  by wood engraver, Iain Macnab in 1925, the Grosvenor School was different from other London-based art schools of the time. There were no exams, students enrolled on courses when they could, and once they learned the rudiments of linocutting (the course most associated with the school), they were encouraged to develop their own style. 

The emphasis on printmaking, and more specifically linocutting fell in with the ethos of key members of staff. Claude Flight, art department head, wanted cheap, easy to use materials, firm in his belief that art should be accessible to all. Not only should one produce art, irrespective of one’s standing in life, but it should be affordable, selling for no more than a few guineas.

In this forward-thinking environment the linocut, once a sombre monochrome affair, underwent a make-over and became a new, democratic art form. Colours were introduced into the printmaking process and both teachers and students, inspired by the ever-changing scenery of London, set to work recreating the energy of the capital in their compositions.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see the work of this generation of print artists, who in the 20s and 30s captured the mood and preoccupations of the inter-war years. 

I dived into the ‘Urban Living’ section and was struck by the proliferation of styles.

Ethel Spowers’s compositions stood out for me, particularly Special Edition 1938. A crowd forms in the street, each member of the public avidly reading the newspaper. Have Hitler’s troops just marched into Czechslovakia? White sheets, like billowing sails, fill the frame. Interestingly, they are principally women readers, judging by the cloche hats on show. Spowers’s repetition of plum, russet and green hues and her flattened perspective remind me of a beautiful Japanese woodcut. The traffic lights emerge from a sea of newspaper.

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Equally appealing but perhaps less elegant, was another of Powers’s prints, A Gust of Wind 1930-31. A figure clutches at a newspaper being swept away in all directions. A little scene captured to perfection.

In the ‘At Work At Play’, ‘Pastoral Life’ sections, one was reminded of how, despite the reduction of working hours for many, how hard manual labour could be for those straining to produce food for the expanding cities. I was particularly struck by Sybil Andrews’s rather unnerving Fall of the Leaf 1934.

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Three horses tug an obsolete, hand-held plough up a remarkably steep terrain. The fields surrounding, curve off at odd angles and the trees resemble half-opened fans. It is an extraordinary work of warped reality which makes one feel quite queasy!

On the ‘Play’ front, Dorrit Black’s Music 1927-8 (see Title Image) was a more vibrant version of Matisse’s The Dance,1909. Black’s print encapsulates the ecstasy of dance during the jazz age. Meanwhile Cyril Power’s The Concerto, 1935, is a study of an orchestra in full flow. Here it is interesting to see the old woodcut style appear in the cellos and piano strings.

Cyril Power also impresses in the room entitled, ‘On the Move’, where, in The Tube Train 1930, the printmaker captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the commuter train, referred to as ‘The Tank’ at the time. The discomfort of its red-faced occupants is palpable, sweltering no doubt in  their suits, top hats and Trilbies! 

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Power also sought to capture the speed and movement of the new spectator sports such as tennis, sports car and horse events. The Sport section was interesting in that it was the first time sport was captured in this way. The elongated arms of the tennis player at the net and the racing car distorted by the speed it is travelling at, are all exaggerated images and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but they are an early record of the excitement caused by these spectator sports which were in their infancy.

This was a very satisfying show on many fronts. The art-deco age will always attract the crowds of course but what was of particular interest for me, was to see an equal input of both female and male artists. There is so much talk these days of women been underrepresented in art and this show certainly redresses the balance. It gives it a satisfying wholeness.

So what happened to the humble print priced at a couple of guineas? Well now an original Cyril Power print  may go for as much as £100,000!

Highly recommended.

KH

 Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking runs until 8th September 2019

 

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. A Revelation.

 

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Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico

 

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.

The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball. 

When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!

Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia as King.

It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!

Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.

Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right  across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.

In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.

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But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.

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Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.

Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.

Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his   contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.

I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!

For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.

 This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!

KH

Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.

https://operahollandpark.com/season-and-events/