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

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

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):