Benjamin Britten and the Challenge of Singing

 

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Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten  by Kenneth Green 1943

 

The voice is an extraordinary thing. Air pumped from our lungs, passes over the fleshy folds in our throat, to emit a full spectrum of sounds. Some more pleasing than others.

Last weekend I shouted and screamed so hard at a football match that I I woke up hoarse!

Professional singers cannot afford to lose their most precious asset – their money spinning, life-enhancing, voice. They will go to great lengths to protect it and spend decades training it to be as versatile as possible; to weather all musical challenges.

And even then they worry: When I interviewed star baritone, Jacques Imbrailo, at the Royal Opera House recently Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo , Imbrailo talked about what many professional singers at all levels feel about contemporary music, that it has to be handled with great care. 

New operas are sometimes frustrating to prepare for, rhythmically and harmonically. For him the old composers wrote better for the voice. This didn’t stop him earning himself great reviews in Britten’s Billy Budd both at Glynebourne and at the Royal Opera House.

Benjamin Britten, although not absolutely modern (he died in December 1976) had a way of testing his singers, notably tenor Peter Pears, who was also his life partner.

On September 21st, I attended the opening of the Kensington Olympia Music Festival of Music and the Arts  (KOFMA) where an ambitious programme of Britten Song Cycles had been chosen to wet our palates this season. It was an interesting choice of programme, for not only are Britten’s songs a challenging sing, but they are not always easy for audiences, unfamiliar with the work.

I had never heard Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, which Britten wrote in 1940 during his time in the United States. Britten dedicated it to Peter Pears, who was much daunted by the prospect of singing the work which required formidable agility in the vocal range. Pears, who was at the beginning of his career, gave himself time to prepare, and didn’t sing Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in public until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall. 

At the KOFMA opening I attended, James Black’s tenor voice, with its warm, rich tones, were gorgeousness incarnate. Perfectly suited to sing Britten’s extended love letter to Peter Pears, Black’s performance had however two tiny chinks. Several squeaks after he had hit certain notes cleanly. I am no expert on why this happened but these so-called slips added authenticity to the anguished emotions Britten was endeavouring to express. Black’s performance is one which I will remember – it was so emotionally charged.

Young soprano (22 years of age) Bonnie Callaghan sang On This Island. Of note was the achingly beautiful Nocturne which she sang to perfection.

The high point of the evening was Britten’s late work Phaedra which he dedicated to Dame Janet Baker. Its full title is Op.93 Dramatic Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano. And dramatic it is. It not only requires virtuosity with the voice but fine acting skills. The audience needs to believe that the singer is Phaedra, married to Theseus and in love with her step son Hippolytus, and suffering much on account of the shame she feels for transgressing social mores.

If anyone was going to pull off the work, it was Irish mezzo-soprano Laura Lamph. I have been following her career with interest for the past five years. As a solo artist she has taken on operatic roles such as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido must have prepared her psychologically for Phaedra, (Dido and Phaedra are tormented queens who both decide to take their own lives). Dido however is an easier sing. 

On the evening in question in St Peter’s Church, Lamph’s performance was quite mesmerising. She came to the stage, her face whitened, her black eye-liner accentuating Phaedra’s mad, staring eyes. Without stage props or orchestra, simply a piano to accompany her (the accompanist Miles Lallement is the best in the business) the audience was transported inside her tormented mind.

Meanwhile here is Janet Baker’s Phaedra live recording with orchestra.

 

There is no doubt, Phaedra is an exciting challenge for the mezzo willing to throw herself into the role. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In the end, it is up to singers to decide what roles they want to take on and how they want to sing them. Or is it? Singers are not always in a position to choose. They need to earn a living and put food on the table.

Curious to see how one prepares for a virtuosic, ‘difficult sing’ in this case, Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, I went to talk about it with Laura Lamph the following day of her performance.

Why did you decide to sing Britten’s Phaedra?

I had originally thought of singing a selection of Britten folk songs but it was suggested by my teacher (Ashley Stafford) and accompanist Miles Lallemant that I should think about singing Phaedra. I thought, why not use the opportunity to challenge myself and the audience. 

What did you think of it at first and what made you think you could do it?

I listened to Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly perform it and I thought, Wow, that is class – I need to sing it. I had a few concerns about the fact that it is quite high as I am not always keen to use the upper limits of my voice. My other thought was whether it would work with piano but I chatted with Miles and we decided that for this particular occasion it would work.

Do you like singing difficult repertoire?

Interesting question, It depends on why it is difficult. Because I am not always in control of the repertoire I perform, I sing quite a lot of difficult music, sometimes I don’t love it all. Basically, I like it if it is worth the effort involved in learning it! Phaedra is an amazing work, so cleverly written and was 100% worth it!

Did you receive help in your preparation? 

Yes, I rehearsed with Miles and the piano and had some lessons working specifically on this piece.

What are the particular difficulties of the piece?

Some people might not find it difficult but for me I would say the extremes of range, the chromatic passages and the frequent changes in time. I worked quite a lot on my character as the presentation in a piece like this makes such a difference.

Did just having the piano for accompaniment make it harder?

I am not sure really as I have not tried it with the orchestra but I would say that I probably had a lot more opportunity to practice with the piano than I would have otherwise. I would definitely like to try it with the other instruments at some point.

Are you protective of your voice?

In my own way I am but you have to live and singing is a big part of my life but not my whole life. I don’t do anything weird and I try not to worry about it too much as I am convinced you can worry yourself into frequent vocal crisis. I am not always at 100% but I always sing unless I am in a bad way, if I didn’t I would be in financial crisis! However, I do try not to party or be wild before a big performance.

Is there some repertoire you refuse to sing because it’s not healthy for the voice?

There have been a couple of occasions were composers ask for strange things to create a certain effect and I know they are not great for my voice, particularly if I have to do them repeatedly.  I usually try and find a cheat or assure the director that I will do it in performance but can certainly not sustain it in days of rehearsal. 

Would you like to perform Phaedra again?

I definitely want to do it again! I am already thinking about a programme I could make it work as part of or possibly even recording it at some point.

KH

 

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

 

The Power of Music and Birdsong

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Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548

 

Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once! 

I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.

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Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.

With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia.  The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.

We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.

 Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).

We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!

 

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Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral

Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.

Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing. 

 

Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.

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More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.

At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.

Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.

I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.

Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.

I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.

KH

To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

And https://cityoflondonsinfonia.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/the-influence-of-absolute-bird/

RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk

Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/

Exquisite intimacy, fluency and warmth: Sarah Beth Briggs plays Schumann and Brahms

822252239829Schumann: Papillons, Kinderszenen; Brahms: Opp. 117, 118

Sarah Beth Briggs, piano

Avie Records AV2398

February 2019 was the centenary of the birth of Denis Matthews, a great pianist from an earlier era of British pianism, who was also a respected teacher and lecturer. Matthews studied with Harold Craxton (another pianist-teacher from an earlier era, and for those of us d’un certain age, a name forever synonymous, along with Donald Tovey, with ABRSM editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas).

Matthews’ most longstanding private pupil, the British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, who commenced her studies with him at the age of eight, recalls her beloved teacher with great fondness and a profound respect for his intelligence, his insightful, fully rounded approach to teaching and music appreciation, and his own superb musicianship.

Denis Matthews was the most incredible inspiration. He was such a terrific all round musician. He made me understand that there was far more to being a good musician than playing the piano. Lessons would involve listening to Mozart operas, Beethoven string quartets, Brahms symphonies etc and then making the piano ‘become’ a singer, a string quartet, a pair of horns – always looking way beyond the dots on any given page!….So much was about the joys of being brought to great piano repertoire from a much wider musical perspective

– Sarah Beth Brigg, concert pianist

Matthews was renowned for his unaffected refined pianism. A performer who was more concerned to serve the interests of the music rather than the musician’s ego, his brilliant, questioning mind brought magic and freshness to his interpretations.

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Composite photo of Denis Matthews & Sarah Beth Briggs by Clive Barda

With her latest disc Sarah Beth Briggs pays tribute to her beloved teacher through the music that was central to her studies with Matthews and their joint musical passions: two sets of late Brahms piano pieces (opp 117 and 118), and Schumann’s Papillons and his popular Kinderszenen, music which was “the subject of a sort of ‘party game’ whenever Denis visited my family home, when he would begin one of the miniatures on one piano and expect me to take over – from memory! – on the other”.

While her debt of gratitude to Matthews is at the heart of Sarah’s new disc, Clara Schumann is the unifying thread in the selection of pieces included here. Kindeszenen was inspired by a comment by Clara about her husband’s childlike nature, while a sense of longing and unrequited love pervades Brahms’ late piano works. Sarah brings an exquisite intimacy, fluency and warmth to the late Brahms pieces, sensitively capturing their inherent poignancy and haunting tenderness with a refined dynamic palette, a glowing touch, supple rubato and a refreshing musical honesty.

The same intimacy is achieved in Schumann’s Kinderszenen: these pieces intended for children become grown up miniatures, reflective and touching, never sentimental. Traumerei, for example, too often the subject of clichéd readings, here finds a plaintive grace and elegant simplicity in Sarah’s discerning hands. Schumann’s Papillons, which opens the disc, has an expansive grandeur, but Sarah’s exceptional control of sound is always elegant and tasteful, even in the extrovert movements. The overall sound quality of the recording is excellent, the piano rich and colourful across its entire range, with an appealing sweetness in the upper register.

Recommended


FW

(this review first appeared on our sister site The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

A Riveting Ripper at the Coliseum

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall. 

Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.

In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.

The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show. 

Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.

What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.

The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!

The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!

No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.

I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.

Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKNatalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.

It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare). 

Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain! 

The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.

But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.

Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.

Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen. 

Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.

It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like  locusts feeding on their female prey. 

Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.

 The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter. 

Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.

 Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.

As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.

Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.

There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.

Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!

My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was  a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell. 

In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus

 

All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!

 

KH

 

 

Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm

500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance. 

McBurney’s Magic Flute Enchants Again.

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Mozart’s Magic Flute is an unusual opera, full of Viennese slapstick, magic and strange journeys through a fairy-tale landscape.

Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto, was a theatre-manager, actor and most importantly, Mozart’s friend. The two relished working together and being both a little strapped for cash in 1791, they strove to create an opera that would be entertaining, comical and meaningful. In other words, it had to have everything. And who better than Mozart to convey all of the above in music!

The tale begins simply. Prince Tamino has fallen for the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, who has been abducted by the High Priest, Sarastro. Sarastro is using Pamina as a hostage to stop the Queen of Night wreaking havoc upon his people.

Sarastro’s character is interesting. He is both evil, having abducted Pamina, and fair, seeing it his duty to protect his community. Nevertheless, he rules his people with a rod of iron and forces Tamino and Pamina to undergo terrible trials before he allows them to be together.

Is Sarastro good or bad? The truth is, he is both. This is exactly what makes this opera so endlessly fascinating.

This is Simon McBurney’s 3rdstab at The Magic Flute since its first outing in 2013 so he has had plenty of practice with this enigmatic narrative and has earned huge acclaim for the fruits of his labour.

The staging is of course superb. You would expect this with McBurney. It is not so complex as to detract from the singing. The direction is fluid, lucid and funny.  Michael Levine’s drawbridge stage design is simple and very effective: hoisted and tilted at an awkward angle it symbolises the character’s psychological turmoil; raised up, it becomes the neon-lit roof of Sarastro’s priestly sanctum. Laid flat it is becomes the high priest’s meeting table.

Special visual projections and sound effects enliven the bare scenery. They are a speciality of McBurney. Most memorable is Papageno’s trial of silence where Papageno’s footsteps and scrunching sweet wrappers are amplified to great comic effect.

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Thomas Olieman’s Papageno was a triumph on the night. Not for the first time I hear. Olieman knows how to appear deliciously absurd or touchingly tragic. His wish to hang himself (because he has no love) is shocking in amongst all the horseplay. Olieman’s marvellous baritone voice seemed happy singing comedy or tragedy. It is clearly a role made for him.

Meanwhile, Lucy Crowe, playing Pamina, was entrancing. Her crystalline, lyrical soprano, enraptured the audience and the pairing with Rupert Charlesworth taking up his first ENO leading role as Tamino, worked like a dream. Their voices melded together beautifully and Charlesworth was convincing as her princely paramour.

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The baddies in the piece were equally good. German soprano, Julia Bauer, making her house debut as The Queen of Night, was a menacing presence in her wheel chair as she held out her knife to her daughter and asked her to kill Sarastro. In the famous, “I’ll have revenge, no longer can I bear it”, her staccato coloratura skills and her four top F’s showed her remarkable vocal control, but she never lost sight of her malevolent, witchy character. Meanwhile, Brindley Sherratt had gravitas as the powerful Sarastro and Daniel Norman, was very creepy as the sexual deviant, Monostatos.

Most bewitching were the three Genii (see title photograph) sent to guide Tamano and Papageno along their journey.  ‘The three boys’, who trotted along with their canes, their long, white hair standing up on end, looked as they had just walked out of a Tolkien novel. Their vocals were brilliantly ethereal, discordant and bizarrely beautiful.

It is rare to be presented with such a perfect operatic production. ENO is having a good run at the moment. Of course McBurney, the singers and orchestra had good material to play with in the first place. But from start to finish, McBurney’s direction not only makes sense but it flows effortlessly. No lulls in this Magic Flute. The special effects provide the necessary magic intrinsic to the work.

And what of Tamano and Papagano? They are not only saved by the power of love. The magic flute and chimes protect them from evil spells. Music becomes their salvation. And strange friends along the way, some with questionable morals, become their mentors and guides. It’s a topsy-turvy world in The Magic Flute, one which we all know too well.

 

 

KH

 

The ‘Magic Flute’ continues : 21, 23 and 28 March and 2,9 and 11 April at 7.30pm. 16 March at 6.30pm and 6 April at 3p

Dior and the Story of the Perfect Dress

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In his autobiography Christian Dior tells the story of a fortune teller he met at a 1919 charity event for veterans of the Great War. He was an impressionable, imaginative young man. The fortune teller told him that he would suffer poverty earlier on in his life but that his luck would change and that he would make ‘a great deal of money out of women’. Needless to say, he ran home to tell his family. His father, Maurice, an affluent industrialist, laughed the loudest.

His childhood spent in Normandy by the sea with his brothers and sisters was happy. Life was full of parties and friends. Despite being shy and reserved, Christian knew how to make good friends.

In 1931 disaster struck. Christian’s father’s enterprise went bust and Christian lost both his brother and beloved mother, Madeleine. Penniless, Christian wound up the art gallery he had set up with a friend and fell gravely ill with TB. If it hadn’t been for the friends rallying round to raise money for the sanatorium, we would have probably been deprived of one of the greatest dress designers of the twentieth century. Dior recovered and returned to Paris to embark on a career in haute couture.

In 1946, aged forty-one, Maison Christian Dior was born, thanks to the financial backing of an important French industrialist named Marcel Boussac. Nicknamed ‘the cotton king’, Boussac had made money out of two world wars and had become the richest man in France.

At the V and A’s exhibition: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I  joined a traffic jam of people and circumvented the cameras, a television presenter and a small army of photographers, who had parked their tripods in front of the choicest Dior creations and were refusing  to budge!

I imagined Christian Dior peering down at us from his cloud, in his habitual grey suit, looking every bit the plump French priest, shaking his head and floating off into oblivion. He cherished his privacy and was happiest sketching at a café table, well away from the fashion circus.

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I finally slipped into Room 1 of the exhibition, which is devoted to Christian Dior, the man. The display cabinet was full of photographs of his childhood. Dior as a boy in a sailor suit. We have a portrait of Christian as a young man. He has bright, sensitive, kind eyes and he’s sitting on a divan with an open book. Like Proust, he was a great watcher. A watcher of women at the balls and parties his mother and others held in his circle.  When she died so suddenly something must have broken inside of him. He consciously strove to recreate her world, her liking for the eighteenth century furniture and dress.

All these things are implied and shown in the ball gowns in the Historicism room. Christian Dior was drawn to the sinuous lines of the Belle Epoque dress (late 1880s), the sumptuous silks, and the tightly waisted mid-19thcentury fashion. His fashion showroom at 30 Rue Montaigne was made up in the same style – but in muted grey, so that the furniture and soft furnishings wouldn’t detract from the beautiful models circling the drawing room.

A crazy John Galliano gown embroidered with aqua marine flowers dominates the room. In the background stands an 18thcentury folly with formal garden. Galliano was the great-great grandson in the Dior designer dynasty if we are to view it as a family. I overheard someone say: ‘Galliano is not necessarily the best but he is the most interesting after Dior.’ There is no doubt, Galliano’s theatricality and his exuberance and colour brought magic to the show.

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For me, the real highlights were Dior’s impeccably tailored suits of the early nineteen fifties, the cinched waists, soft shoulders, the skirts coming down below the knee moulded to the figure were the height of femininity and sophistication.

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Memories of a Dior-inspired Agnes B suit I had bought in the early nighties surfaced. Charcoal grey, fashioned in flannel with fitted jacket, lots of buttons, and figure-hugging skirt. With it, I had positively sailed into business meetings. My Agnes B suit was my lucky suit. The one that pulled in the big contracts – strict but feminine, professional but comfortable. It lasted me ten years and I am so sorry I didn’t have a copy made of it!

Aside from the tailored suits, tailored dresses, such as Dior’s Tulip Dress from the Spring 1953 collection or the chic H-line dress, sheathed at the chest of Autumn 1954, stopped me in my tracks. They are still so timeless, so beautiful.

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H-line Dress

There are five hundred objects on display in this exhibition but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them. This is all due to Oriole Cullen’s careful curating and also Nathalie Crinière’s artful exhibition design. The themed rooms, eleven in all, showed off the clothes to their best advantage in their different settings. The labelling meanwhile provided just enough information to retain our interest.

 

Most memorable was The Garden Room,which draws on Dior’s passion for flowers and gardens. There is a touching story about Dior’s youngest sister, Catherine Dior, who joined the resistance during World War II and was interned at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Christian was so relieved when she returned safely that he named his Miss Dior perfume after her. The stunning Baccarat bottles containing the original perfume are on display. He also designed a Miss Dior dress with tiny silk flowers in her honour knowing that she loved gardens as much as him. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s (Dior’s present Creative director) Garden in Bloom dress from the Dior Spring-Summer collection of 2017 is also worth lingering over. The petal-like flowers ornamenting the gown are in fact cut and dyed feathers.

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I finally entered the Ateliers room with great anticipation for I was setting foot into Dior’s inner sanctum, the workroom. It was filled with dummies in glass cases. They were clothed in white cotton toiles, the test garments made up from Christian Dior’s sketches. Admiring them in turn, I began to appreciate the different panels of a jacket, a dress or skirt, the layering, the stitching and sheathing. Here I started to really see how one hundred hours could be spent hand producing one of these garments.

Christian valued his seamstresses or petites mains for good reason for he was no technician. They cried when he died so suddenly, aged fifty-two. During his ten-year tenure he produced seventy collections. He was an inspiration for the artistic directors who followed. I wonder however whether any of his successors came through the tradesmen entrance as he liked to do at 30 rue Montaigne. I somehow doubt it.

 

KH

 

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs from 2 February – 14 July 2019

 

The very readable, Dior by Dior (The Autobiography of Christian Dior) is on sale at the V and A priced £9.99