Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo

 

ROYAL OPERA

 

Jacques Imbrailo is singing in Jules Massenet’s Werther (see our review here) at the Royal Opera House and then he is off around the world on various singing engagements through 2020. In April this year, this rising star among baritones earned great reviews in Billy Budd and his Albert in Werther is another step forward in his accelerating career.

Karine Hetherington met the 40-year-old South African at the Royal Opera House.

Any opera singers in your family?

No – no classical music whatsoever. I grew up on a farm. My parents are not musical at all.

I went to a boys’ choir school at a young age and that’s where the classical music started.

Did you have a mentor somewhere along the line?

At different stages, different people. Probably the biggest influence that persuaded me to take singing seriously and follow it as a career, was my first singing teacher in South Africa, Professor Werner Nel. He was a wonderful singer, a wonderful teacher. He gave me lessons when I was about sixteen and I carried with him when I was at university.

Did you study music?

At first I studied law. I was a very lazy law student. It went in one ear, onto the paper and out the other ear. I didn’t care much about it.

Was the law useful?

No use whatsoever!

What was your first real break?

I was taken on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Royal Opera House. So that helped. I sang in the title role of Owen Wingrave in the Linbury Theatre which got well received. On the strength of that I got an audition for Billy Budd at Glynebourne.

At what point did you know you were a tenor or a baritone?

My voice broke very late. I could still sing the Queen of the Night at sixteen! But shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my voice started to slide down. At seventeen I was still a school boy tenor. By the time I was taking lessons at university my voice slid down to a baritone.

High baritones often get nudged by people saying ‘aren’t you a tenor’? but it’s not just a matter of singing higher notes. It’s the whole range.

What are your favourite operas to listen to – or do you tend to only concentrate on the operas you are working on?

Only to operas I’m working on. When I’m not working, I listen to my children’s music. So it’s the The Lion King and Aladdin at the moment. That’s what’s on in the car most of the time.

Otherwise, rather than listen to operas, I tend to listen to singers that I like. From the baritones I love Battistini, the “King of Baritones” from the nineteenth century. I also love Robert Merrill and at the moment I’m listening to the Swedish tenor Nikolai Gedda.

You have taken on very different roles. How important is the acting process for you?

I love that part very much. Sometimes to my detriment. It can get in the way of singing if you get too emotionally involved, like in Billy Budd. It makes it hard to sing as well as you would like to.

Do you find with getting older, your voice changes?

My voice changes a lot but it’s not to do with age. It depends on my emotional state. Whether I’m tired, my kids have kept me up a lot. You try however to consistently produce the same voice all the time.

So what do you do to relax?

The kids take up all my spare time. Singing abroad I haven’t had a lot of time in the past few years as the roles have been large. But I like to catch up on all the sports. I like to watch rugby.

Have you sung in any contemporary opera?

Yes. I did the Brett Dean Hamlet last year. Another opera called Brothers. I like the end product but I find it very frustrating to learn, rhythmically and harmonically. It takes a long time.

When I first start working on a modern piece I hate it. I’m a grumpy bear for the first few weeks. As I get on top of it, I start to enjoy more or admire more and usually by the time it’s on stage it’s fine.

But for the most part I prefer to sing traditional works. They are safer for the voice.

Favourite city to visit? 

I really enjoyed Madrid because I worked with a great bunch of people there. Chicago. And my wife and I enjoy Amsterdam.

Favourite language to sing in?

I quite like French. It tends to keep the voice in a nice high position. It might not be the one I’m best in, but it suits my voice. I don’t mind Italian or German. Russian is quite nice.

Any mad projects?

You know they do Peter Grimes on the beach in Suffolk. I would love to do Billy Budd on a ship. Cutty Sark. It would be great fun!

What are you next singing?

I’m off to Moscow, end October, to sing Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I go to Washington for a few days to sing the part of Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. After that I’ve got La Favorite and then my first Marcello in la Bohème in Berlin. And Merry Widow in Mumbai of all places which should be interesting. Cose von Tutte in Seville.

A very packed schedule

Yes. I’m having to learn four to five new operas a year at the moment.

I do admire opera singers for their hard work from a young age. Like premiership footballers. Is it really like that?

In some ways yes. It never stops. You have to learn new music, new skills and new repertoire.

Did you have a childhood though?

Yes. I had a glorious childhood on the farm in South Africa. We could run around everywhere without our parents knowing where we were. We’d fish in the river in our spare time at school and in the holidays slept outside under the stars. Rode horses. It saddens me that my kids won’t have what I had.

 

KH

If you want to catch Jacques Imbrailo in Werther, performances are : Sept 24th and 27th. 1st and 5th October 2019

Werther: A Romance Worthy of Revival

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard, Charlotte. Juan Diego Flórez, Werther.

 

As I step into the  Royal Opera House’s stylish new café, there is the familiar Covent Garden buzz. It’s the opening night of Werther, and also the start of the new opera season. The talking points are Joyce di Donato’s upcoming title role in Agrippina. She was also in the last 2016 performance of Werther, alongside the flamboyant Italian tenor, Vittoria Grigolo. Would the 2019 Werther, sung by Juan Diego Flórez, match Grigolo’s high octane performance in 2016?

 I had been gripped by Grigolo’s ROH debut in Werther, a broadcast of  which I saw at the cinema. The camera angles were daring: I remember a close up of Grigolo’s pulsating vocal folds as he hit the high notes.

Werther is all psychological drama. The narrative is bare but doesn’t feel so because of the richness of the music. In parts Jules Massenet, the French composer, shows his love for Wagner, in others, sorrowful and heart-rending music of great delicacy . 

On the September 17th opening of the latest Werther, it took me a while to warm to Flórez’s Werther. While Grigolo’s performance had a Hollywoodian appeal, Flórez brought a quieter, more anguished, interpretation of the role. But I believe it was more effective. True, the voice didn’t have the heft of Grigolo’s. In parts it seemed to be competing with the orchestra. In Act III however I was won over by his rendering of the blood-tingling Pourquoi me réveiller’/What is the use of waking me. There, his silken voice and wonderfully nuanced interpretation earned him huge applause.

But leading tenors do not act alone. Fresh from the Met was the ROH debut of mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard. What a voice she has with acting skills to boot. The role of Charlotte is difficult because the character is dutiful, prosaic, and perhaps even slightly dull. She’s a magistrate’s daughter with maternal responsibilities enforced on her from an early age, due to the death of her mother. She is sister to Sophie, sung and played confidently by Heather Engebretson, who also performed the role with Joyce Di Donato. She is also promised to the worthy Albert.

When Leonard mourned her mother, she did so to perfection in Act I. The scene reveals all the emotion she has held back. Werther, however, has the key to her heart. In Act III, when Charlotte  reads Werther’s letters, she is overcome. The timing is tragic. She has married Albert.

 

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard and Jacques Imbrailo

So for several reasons, Jacques Imbrailo has a job on his hands singing Albert. Projecting dog-like devotion for your wife is hard to do in opera. He could have come across as a smug fool in Act II, sitting proudly beside his new wife. And yet he doesn’t. For one thing he cuts a dashing figure as a young man in a burgundy frock coat (he has no paunch, he is not old). Two, the sky above Albert and Charlotte is a pale blue Joshua Reynolds’s sky with beautiful white cotton wool clouds of harmony disappearing into infinity. Soon to disappear of course. We feel pity for the one who sees beauty, where in fact there is unhappiness.

Finally Imbrailo’s mellifluous, expressive voice. One well-known opera reviewer behind me said to his neighbour: ‘Imbrailo’s up with the best of French baritones.’ 

Imbrailo is in fact South African, a rising star, who enjoyed rave reviews in ROH’s Billy Budd in April this year. He is set for great things. (See my interview with Jacques Imbrailo here)

Werther is a compelling opera. It’s not one which is played very often, perhaps because it is both spare in story-line and also demanding of its voices.

Massenet based his work on Göethe’s novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers/The sorrows of young Werther. When it was published in 1774, it was a signal of the start of the Romantic movement and helped spawn a generation of young men determined to live according to their most deeply-held desires; for sensitivity equalled truth. 

While the movement produced great poets, writers and new political thought, it encouraged egotistical behaviour, dangerous hedonism and premature suicide.

These are of course the paradoxes of romanticism that continue to resonate with us. And in this revival of Werther, we have both a story and performances well worth seeing. Visually arresting – especially in the final act – this is a production that should appeal most of all to a youthful audience. Including the young at heart.

 

KH

Performances of Werther left : 24 and 27th September. 1 and 5 October 2019

 

 

Kollwitz’s War and Grief at the British Museum

Käthe Kollwitz Woman with dead child, 1903,© The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

 

Käthe Kollwitz, née Schmidt, is not a name I had come across in the art world until the British Museum’s show. 

Born in 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz established herself as a leading, influential graphic artist by the time the First World War came about. Her travels to communist China and Russia, and finally to USA in the mid nineteen-thirties, consolidated her reputation abroad, which probably explains why she is virtually unknown in the UK.

But she was always going to succeed in the male-dominated art world she grew up in. Having been raised by progressive parents, who encouraged debate and self-expression at home, she was never going to be a wallflower! And there was much to discuss in this period of social and political unrest.

At art school in Berlin and then in Munich, she focussed on drawing, believing it to be the best medium for conveying what she had to say and feel about the injustices of society. Her father, who was supportive of her career, was not by the same token supportive of her marrying. A proposal from a medical student, Karl Kollwitz, got given short shrift. Interestingly, the Munich School for Women Artists she attended dissuaded female students from forming romantic liaisons with men. Celibacy was not only encouraged but a rule of the institution.

Independent-minded Käthe finally jumped ship after producing her first print in 1890. She went ahead and married Karl Kollwitz who was now a doctor. His practice took them to a deprived part of Berlin.

It is no surprise, given Kollwitz’s concerns, that the poor and down-trodden would dominate her early work. 

At the show I was swept up in the drama of her etchings and lithographs of revolt. In Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak) we see a woman with her back to us, sinewy arms and fists held aloft, firing up an army of men charging with pitchforks. Great stuff! 

Käthe Kollwitz, Losbruch (Outbreak), 1903 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Weavers’ Revolt series, where she follows the uprising, backroom plotting and anguished family scenes, is also arresting and earned her an art prize. A lithograph entitled Tod (Death) shows a dimly lit room, where a man sits, his face, a mask of grief, shock and exhaustion.

Kollwitz’s images are never neutral. In her evocations of war, produced post 1917, her heart and focus is always with the civilian. Mothers offer their children up as sacrifices. Parents huddle together in grief. Mothers form a tight circle around their children. ‘The Mothers’ is an image which has stayed with me.

IMG_20190911_104732_resized_20190912_032233895

‘The Mothers’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1922-23)

The works are heart-rending as you would expect them to be and the use of the wood-cuts, the grooves and crude lines, have a primitive quality, one which perfectly conveys the starkness of the WW1 nightmare.

When I was there, the curator, Frances Carey, drew our attention to a searingly emotional lithograph entitled ‘Woman With Dead Child’ (See Header Image)

 It is a self-portrait of Kollwitz with her son Peter from 1903 . She executed it in front of a mirror, much to her young son’s annoyance I imagine, who was told to keep still. A woman embraces her lifeless child with mad passion. Peter was to die on the Western Front in 1914.

Her son’s death confirmed Kollwitz’s pacifist outlook.

In Berlin today, in front of the Neue Wache (a museum dedicated to the victims of war), you will see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s sculpture entitled Pietà, featuring a mother with dead son (1937-39). I will certainly be going there on my next trip.

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in a long while. Well worth a visit.

And if you need a little cheering … walk into the British Museum’s Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970, next door. It is a neat, colourful, and thought-provoking, themed show. The ‘Identity’ section, containing works by Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney is of particular interest.

 

 

KH

‘Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz’ and ‘Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now’ are on until 12 January 2020. In Room 90 of the British Museum. Both are free entry shows.

 

“It feels like love”: Barb Jungr’s ‘Bob, Brel and Me’

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

A new album by Barb Jungr is always a cause for celebration, but it’s a particular delight to be able to write about what must be one of her very finest recordings. ‘Bob, Brel and Me’ is the kind of coherent, complete – and importantly, open-hearted and generous – release that makes a long-term fan like me want to take an armful of copies out and press them into the hands of friends, relatives, even unsuspecting passers-by. I’d just have time to say, “If you want to understand why this artist is so special, take a listen to this. It’s all in there”… before moving on to my next target. But I will try to explain here, too.

For those of you yet to encounter Barb Jungr’s music, I would say the closest genre fit is jazz – that’s the section where you’ll find her CDs. But in fact, I think she’s one of the finest interpreters of  modern song – any song – we currently have. Whether it’s a number as old as the hills, rehearsed and retrod by hundreds of other musicians, or something relatively new or obscure – songs undergo a genuine transformation in her hands, and you never listen to them in quite the same way again. While the material might look like jazz – acoustic, usually piano-based, partly improvisatory – it doesn’t always feel like it. Jungr ranges across folk and rock for source material, especially the singer-songwriter lineage of the 60s and 70s. At the same time, somehow, she inhabits a world of cabaret and chanson: live, she is absolutely fearless, unpredictable and magnetic – totally unafraid to take the audience on a journey where they have no idea of the destination.

This powerful performing style might partly explain why, in particular, she has a special gift for covering songs by men. (One of my favourite discs from her back catalogue is called ‘The Men I Love: the New American Songbook’ – featuring material by David Byrne, Todd Rundgren, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen among others.) But the Man She Loves The Most in this context is almost certainly Bob Dylan, who has two whole Jungr albums to himself (the mighty ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and the compilation ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’) and finds his way in some shape or form onto many of the others.

I don’t think it’s an accident that these blokes are especially renowned and valued for their lyrics – complex, intriguing words and images come pouring out of them – so their work immediately lends itself to Jungr’s storytelling charisma and technical precision (the way she seems able to communicate such emotion while dancing around the melodies and preserving crystal-clear diction is worthy of several air-punches throughout this new CD alone). A superb songwriter herself, Jungr’s own lyrics are witty, tender and rich in detail, so it’s an extra treat when one of her records features a few self-penned tracks.

Essentially, I think her versions of this kind of  ‘male canon’ are so successful because she has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of a song. Her strength and tenacity mean the material retains its grip, but at the same time she punctures any aggression or ‘toxicity’ in the masculinity – a double threat.

So we come to the latest record, which seems designed to bring together these three key areas of her craft: ‘Bob’ is of course Dylan, now accompanied by Jacques Brel to represent the chanson element, and a clutch of mostly new songs written by Jungr with a range of collaborators. Mixing up these three groups of songs results in a seamless listen, due not only to Jungr’s voice, but the talents of a really top-notch band – tight and responsive, every track seems to ‘evolve’ as you listen. There’s a large cast, but if I had to mention two specific players who have leapt out at me in the first couple of listens, it would be pianist and arranger Jenny Carr and drummer Rod Youngs.

Two songs sequenced together near the start really showcase their talents. ‘Jacky’ (Brel) and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (Dylan) make a perfect pair, presenting the ‘song and dance man’ troubadour side of both their creators. Accordingly, Youngs lifts a terrific version of ‘Jacky’ with the merest nod to the military might of the original, but with a world-weary, buffeted beat that, more than keeping time, colours the mood of the song around it. While on the other hand, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ might be a song that almost everyone thinks they know inside out (especially through the Byrds version) – but here, Carr’s intricate arrangement makes her own piano part relatively sparse, but crucially features a tolling, slightly off-kilter, bell-like note, over and over again. It gives the song a flavour of the cyclic, eternal, like a jazz take on ‘Winterreise’s hurdy-gurdy man. And on both, Jungr weighs each word to perfection, making you wonder how she’s actually managing to get through every syllable-packed line while teasing new variations and additions out of the tunes.

But the whole album is full of  commanding vocal performances. ‘The Cathedral’ (Brel) exchanges the manic intensity of the original with more of a seductive slow-build, Jungr’s vocal managing to caress the melody with more layers of attractive embellishment – while at the same time becoming more conversational and persuasive. I’m still not sure how she manages to communicate multiple, at times conflicting moods with just the timbre of her voice, but she does. Another song that benefits from this stately attention to detail is Dylan’s ‘Buckets of Rain’, which here is a hymnal blues underpinned by organ and double bass, elevating the earthly to something spiritual: accordingly Jungr moves apparently effortlessly between a delicate soar and a breathy intimacy.

One pleasing side-effect of these regular returns to Dylan is that the theme of each project overall affects the kind of light Jungr shines on his work. Here, Barb and band have placed him squarely in the Brel Building, with accordion decorating ‘Buckets of Rain’, and jazz-club piano and sax launching a propulsive pincer attack on the more Bob-like harmonica solo. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ is sheer joy from start to finish, with the twist of the title finding its way into the vocal treatment, Jungr varying the circle of the vocal melody or pace while the band changes keys like they were gears.

Scattered among these masterful covers are several infectious originals, seemingly written and scored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the two other ‘B’s. ‘In the Secret Spaces’ (written with Jamie Safir) makes more of Youngs’s delicately hyperactive drumming, the two-left-feet rhythm matching the bright, conversational tone of the vocal (“the moon – my God, the moon is huge!”), while opener ‘Rise and Shine’ – a co-write with Level 42’s Mike Lindup, gives us tragicomedy in both lyrics and music, as Jungr cheerfully puns and rhymes her way through an agonising break-up story as the band seek to constantly buoy her up. My favourite new song on the record was also written with Lindup: ‘Incurable Romantic’ casts a characteristically amused look at the old clichés – what concision there is in lines like “Falling free / Into those arms, and no net / How many fish can there be in the sea?” – but set to a sublime tune of deceptively detailed beauty. Looking at the marriage of humour, heart and honesty in Jungr’s own work illuminates how and why Dylan and Brel must be so important to her – and, in turn, what she can bring to them.

Barb Jungr has made so many great records. But there’s an argument for this one being the finest distillation yet of  where she’s coming from, why and how performs such compelling music, and what makes her unique. Warmly recommended.

*

You can buy ‘Bob, Brel and Me’ online here.

Barb Jungr’s website lists all her upcoming live dates here – go go go!


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

 

Mothers and Sons and L’arlesiana

Ali Wright

Yvonne Howard, Rosa Mamai and L’innocente sung by Samantha Price.

 

At a performance of L’Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park recently, I was bowled over by Yvonne Howard’s heart-breaking aria, Esser madre è un inferno (To be a mother is hell!). Howard as the long-suffering matriarch is superb. When she pleads for God to watch over her son, who has become enamoured with a woman of questionable repute, you really feel her pain.

The theme of unbridled, misguided passion in opera is a potent one and which still resonates with contemporary audiences, for man is flawed.

L’arlesiana was first performed in 1897 in Milan, over a century ago, but the psychological drama still  plays out (within reason) in our homes, for isn’t it every mother’s nightmare to see her son give his heart away to someone who makes him unhappy, or happy for that matter! The rejection a mother experiences is today’s best kept secret, for to admit to such feelings is to imply that you have failed in some way. It is astonishing to think that in these supposedly enlightened times, these lousy emotions are still felt by women who work, are independent and who enjoy interests outside their children. That they should feel that age-old jealousy towards their son’s lover seems inconceivable, but trust me, they do! And then they get over it. In opera it’s different.

In L’arlesiana Rosa Mamai’s solution is to steer her son in the direction of a nice girl, Vivetta, from their Provencal village. Flur Wyn played this role to perfection with her clean as a whistle soprano voice. Her devoted love heals him momentarily but alas Federico cannot forget his scarlet-clad arlesienne.

She appeared on stage in the OHP production, a dream figure, with her back to us, writhing her curvaceous body and smoking provocatively, before disappearing out of a door, out of Federico’s life forever. Her inclusion was unnecessary I felt, for she holds more power over the audience unseen. 

Sadly Rosa Mamai’s obsession with Federico, hoovers up any love she may have kept in reserve for her youngest boy, l’innocente, sung disarmingly well by Samantha Price. A simple soul, l’innocente feasts on tales of guiless goats and nasty wolves, all  recounted by grandfather, Baldassare, played sympathetically by Keel Watson. These tender moments are our only musical respite from the drag and pull of straining violin strings powering the drama along.

Cilea’s opera is beautiful in parts but it is far from perfect. OHP’s production reigns in the melodrama as best it can. And yet when Mamai clasps her hands together in Act 3 and sings Esser madre è un inferno, I knew why I had come. If you click on the Youtube link of the Renata Tebaldi recording, you will have some idea of Yvonne Howard’s fantastic live performance.

 

 

KH

Iolanta: Coming Into the Light

 

tchaikovsky-kuznetsov-crop

Portrait of Peter Ilitsch Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Dimitriyevdi Kuznetsov 1893

 

Tchaikovsky’s philosophical and psychological opera, Iolanta, playing at Opera Holland Park, has been a big hit with critics and audiences alike this summer. It is easy to see why, with its starry line up of singers such as the soprano Natalya Romaniw together with tenor, David Butt-Philip (the two have wanted to sing together for quite some time!). These two, coupled with heavy-weight Russian bass, Mikhail Svetlov, had me rushing to go and see this little-known opera before it finished on August 3rd.

I admit to being a little worried about Iolanta’s story line at first, fearing its irrelevance to today’s audience as it had its origins in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen ( I was greatly troubled by his stories as a child).

 It is the story of King René and the lengths he goes to to protect his daughter Iolanta, who is blind and blissfully unaware of the fact thanks to the King’s machinations. No one in his kingdom is to inform Iolanta of her visual impairment and if they do so, they face a death sentence! The weight of responsibility falls on ordinary citizens to check their language, ban colours, visual descriptions from their speech. The gagging order is played out on stage to shocking effect as rows of women bind their own mouths with their neck scarves! 

In the opening scene, Iolanta, played by Romaniw, loads her basket of fruit and falls inexplicably listless and tired. She wonders why her friends know she is crying without them having touched her eyes! Romaniw in an arioso of immense feeling contrasts her present restless state with her past happiness. Romaniw’s voice has everything. Beauty, power, shading, channelled emotion. In this scene, she conveyed all the vulnerability, sweetness, innocence, with that inimitable melancholic tone that only she can produce. 

A white-haired gentleman seated by me, produced a large handkerchief from the top pocket of his jacket and crushed it against his tear-stained cheek. 

The nurse Martha, played by a wonderful Laura Woods, tries to comfort Iolanta. Girls bring in flowers and sing a song about them, the scene ends in a beautiful trio with nurse and two friends who try to lull Iolanta to sleep. I was reeling from the rapturous, rich sound that was produced by all.

 

Ali Wright

Natalya Romaniw singing Iolanta at Opera Holland Park 2019 season

 

Most interestingly, the stage, designed by Takis, is minimalistic. Anything else would have been distracting and schmaltzy (I feared a fairy-tale landscape back drop!).  Composed of intersecting neon lit triangles and trees of lighted baubles, it reminds the audience of the darkness and light inhabiting the universe and possibly brings us back to Iolanta’s mindset, emphasising her visual limitations.

Svetlov, playing her father, produced magic on stage as only a Russian singing in his native language can do.  With his titanic bass, big stage presence, and strong but sympathetic character and tone, he produced many tears from the daughters in the audience. What it is to have a father who cares for you so much that he tries to adjust the world so that you won’t have to suffer!  He may be misguided, a censor – but he loves you that much!

I was particularly interested to hear David Butt-Philip singing Vaudémont, in the all important love duet with Romaniw. The moment critique when she presents him with two white roses instead of a red rose he has requested, was poignant and moving as it is the first time he realises that she is blind. Lost for words, he is numbed into temporary silence. Recovering, he sings of the beauty in nature. The climax comes as Vaudémont describes the importance of light in the world. Butt-Philip had the experience and vocal dexterity to scale up to those high notes cleanly. Butt-Philip bright , optimistic tenor voice was perfect for the role and complimented Romaniw’s mournful tones. In opera, the destructive side of love is often emphasised but in Iolanta it is love’s restorative and healing quality which comes through

Walking away through Holland Park after the grand finale, my head swelling with all the amazing score, my thoughts turned to Tchaikovsky who I imagined  hunched over his composition, late into the night. Did Iolanta allow him to approach the light of his true sexual orientation? Or was he hoping for others to be enlightened and more accepting in affairs of the heart. Who knows – but writing this opera must have been cathartic for him. It is an optimistic work offering hope and light to all of us.

A must if you haven’t seen this. Last two performances 1 and 3rd of August!

KH

Two performances left at Opera Holland Park. 1 and 3rd of August.

Classical Opera Goes Virtual

 

the-fire-of-olympus-poster-1600

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 Classical Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the North of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with opera singer, Michael Jones, who plays Hephaestus in this production, 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 amalgamated chorus into the opera. When Prometheus sings in the finale, ‘What’s 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/