Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Kenshiro Sakairi and the Tokyo Juventus Philharmonic in Mahler’s Eighth

Although some works by a number of composers have had to wait uncommonly lengthy periods of time to receive Japanese premieres - one thinks of both Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Fifth (1918), Handel’s Messiah (1929), Wagner’s Parsifal (1967), Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (1966) and even Bruckner’s Eighth (1959, given its premiere by Herbert von Karajan) - Mahler might be considered to have fared somewhat better.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Melos Sinfonia perform <em>Written on Skin</em> in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg
15 Oct 2017

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Melos Sinfonia perform Written on Skin in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg

Above: Oliver Zeffman

Photo credit: Andy Staples

 

Conductor Oliver Zeffman is taking the members of the Melos Sinfonia - the ensemble which he founded at the age of just sixteen - and a cast of young soloists (Lauren Fagan, Ross Ramgobin, Patrick Terry, Bethan Langford and Nick Pritchard) through their paces as they prepare the concert staging of the opera that they will present in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg in the coming days.

In contrast to many new operas, Written on Skin has not been condemned to post-premiere obscurity and since the first production at Aix in 2012 it has travelled far and wide, receiving two stagings at Covent Garden, in 2013 and earlier this year . I ask Oliver Zeffman what drew him to the opera - which, with its large orchestra which includes a panoply of percussion, glass harmonica and bass viol among its coloristic palette, presents considerable logistical challenges. A semi-staged performance at the Barbican in 2016 with composer Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra evidently had him hooked: Oliver passionately extols - at the breakneck tempo which is evidently his default mode - the riches of the score and, most especially, the disturbing ‘precision’ of Martin Crimp’s visceral libretto, offering snatches to illustrate: ‘Strip the cities of brick’, ‘Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Blind him with it! Make him cry blood!’

Reviewing Written on Skin at the ROH in January this year, I described it as ‘spare, harrowing and unsettling’. Crimp’s tale blends sensuality and sadism, retelling a medieval Provence legend from a contemporary vantage point. The librettist himself has described his ‘instinctive desire to allow our contemporary world to bleed through the drama. Hence my invention of the 21st century angels who initiate and provoke the action and even - in the case of the Boy enter into it’, and we are constantly shifted from medieval to modern by reference to contemporary settings such as a shopping mall or a ‘Saturday car park’. The text juxtaposes the religious with the erotic and conjures a poetic register which is both timeless and of our time; refined yet ruthless. The shocking close of the opera perfectly illustrates this, as Agnes taunts her abusive husband, The Protector, who has just forced her to eat her lover’s heart: ‘No force you use, nothing you forbid, can take away the pictures that Boy’s hands draw on this skin. He can unfold the tight green bud, unwrap the tree, darken the wood, lighten the sky, blacken the dust with rain - each mark he makes on me is good - each colour clear.’

I enquire about the particulars of the Melos’ planned staging. Oliver seems happy to leave the dramatic decisions to Jack Furness, founder and Artistic Director of Shadwell Opera - he says that it’s important to trust the people with whom you’ve chosen to work - but explains that although the Melos Sinfonia will present a ‘concert staging’, the direction will delineate the action of the text precisely for the audience. It strikes me that there is a ‘quasi-ceremonial’ quality about Written in Skin, as the vocal arioso slowly unfolds, as incisive as the text itself, which lends itself to a concert staging format. Indeed, the libretto incorporates narrative, as the characters explain and describe their own actions: ‘The Boy takes from his satchel an illuminated page’, or ‘The Protector wakes up …’

Nick Rutter.jpgOliver Zeffman. Photo credit: Nick Rutter.

It seems apt, too, for Oliver - still only twenty-five - to be performing the music of George Benjamin, who was himself similarly precocious and full of initiative, travelling - at the age of sixteen - to Paris each month to study with Messiaen at the Conservatoire, and earning a contract with Faber when still a teenager. Benjamin went on to studies at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Oliver’s undergraduate life began at Durham University where he initially studied History, before adding Russian, a move which saw him spend a year in St Petersburg where he became fluent in the language and studied at the Conservatory under the direction of Alexander Polishchuk: ‘harmony, analysis and useful things like that’, he says, ‘I had had very little proper grounding in those kind of things before SPB and they were incredibly important for me to study, both there and at RAM.’ He also made the sort of contacts which have clearly been crucial in determining his future path.

After graduation, further studies followed at the Royal Academy of Music; he was the youngest of eight nominees for the Néstle-Salzburg Young Conductor’s Award in 2015, though he makes light of the question of ‘technique’, telling me that if a conductor really knows the score then their baton will communicate. He admires the work of Valery Gergiev - who has been an important mentor and who has invited the Melos to perform Written on Skin at the Mariinsky Theatre - and when I criticise the Russian maestro’s ‘hand-fluttering’ gesture which I struggle to interpret when watching Gergiev conduct, Oliver immediately rebukes me for, he says, it can really work. ‘If you have your own way of communicating something to the orchestra, however unconventional, and it succeeds in communicating what you want, then it shouldn’t matter what it looks like to the audience. It’s about the resultant sound - which is the main goal - and whether you can affect the sound the orchestra makes in the ways you want with your gestures, whatever these might be.’

I ask Oliver why he felt the need to establish his own orchestral ensemble at such a young age. As a violinist (‘not very good’ he says - though these things are surely relative!) in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, he wanted to try his hand at conducting, but as no-one is going to ask a sixteen-year-old to conduct he just got on with things for himself. Originally, the ensemble comprised chiefly musical ‘friends and family’, but gradually his musical network expanded. Casting an eye over the programmes performed during past seasons, it’s interesting to see how the scope, ambition and innovativeness of the Melos’ music-making have evolved. Operas have included Mozart’s The Impresario, Walton’s The Bear and Rachmaninov’s Aleko. There have been world premieres of music by Philip Ashworth, Joel Rust, Edward Nesbit, Arthur Wabel and others. Unusual works are paired together. Oliver introduces a culinary metaphor: it’s like when you’re cooking at home and you’ve got the basic dish and you think, ‘what would go with this?’, and experiment a bit. So, Andrzej Panufnik’s Cello Concerto might be programmed alongside the UK premiere of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No.27; or, Walton’s Façade might share the billing with Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King.

One of the Melos Sinfonia’s major projects has been the fostering of a ‘cultural dialogue’ between the UK and Russia, which has involved several tours to Russia - the ensemble has appeared as part of the International Conservatories Festival and the Sound Ways Festival, and performed in venues including the Mariinsky Theatre, the St Petersburg Philharmonia and St Petersburg State Conservatory - and the commissioning of new works from both British and Russian young composers. An important element of this exchange has been giving Russian audiences the opportunity to hear unfamiliar works: thus, Russian premieres have been plentiful and eclectic - Ligeti’s Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, Dmitri Smirnov’s Dream Journey, Alexander Goehr’s Triptych, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lo spazio inverso, Holst’s Savitri and Colin Matthews’ Divertimento, to name but a few. Oliver insists that Russian audiences are more open-minded than those in the UK: the latter tend to opt for programmes of music with which they are already familiar, or whose composers are personal favourites, whereas Russian audiences are eager to open their ears to the new - although, paradoxically, he says that he encountered little contemporary Russian music in concert halls during his one-year sojourn in the country.

For a twenty-five-year old, Oliver has built up an impressive list of achievements and experience. He has worked with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, assisting conductors such as Ed Gardner, David Zinman and Manfred Honeck, rehearsed Mahler’s Symphony No.8 with the New Japan Philharmonic for Daniel Harding, and recently prepared the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra for concerts with Valery Gergiev in a programme including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 2017 has been a busy and exciting year. In the summer, he made debuts both at West Green House Opera conducting Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In the coming months he will again work with Gergiev, preparing the Rotterdam Philharmonic for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.7, and in the summer of 2018 he will work with the LA Philharmonic, assisting Gustavo Dudamel and others, at the Hollywood Bowl.

To be honest, one hour in Oliver’s company was exhilarating but exhausting! The cliché ‘force of nature’ really does seem apposite. No sooner had the rehearsal at St Cyprian’s ended than he was among his players, chatting and thanking them as he collected in parts, folded music stands, disassembled percussion instruments. Alongside concert-planning and conducting, he adds administration and fundraising to his responsibilities. He seems genuinely surprised when I suggest that taking seventy musicians to Russia is an adventurous logistical exercise. After our meeting, I reflect back on Oliver’s response when I had asked about his music-making activities at Durham: he doesn’t seem to have been heavily involved in the undergraduate music scene, and explained that there was a prevailing attitude of ‘this is the way it’s always been’. Oliver is clearly not one to let ‘convention’ stand in his way; if there is music that he wants to play - more Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss’s tone poems are on his wish-list - then you can be sure that he will, and to acclaim.

Claire Seymour

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):