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

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.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Jane Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra
02 Sep 2018

The BBC Proms visit Ally Pally

On 25th March 1875, Gilbert & Sullivan’s one-act operetta, Trial by Jury, opened at the Royalty Theatre on Dean Street, in Soho. 131 performances and considerable critical acclaim followed, and it out-ran is companion piece, Offenbach’s La Périchole.

Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Jane Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Trial by Jury directed by Jack Furness

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Just under two years earlier, on Saturday 24th May 1973, the Alexandra Palace and Park had opened, five years late and over-budget ( plus ça change). This ‘North London Palace of the People’, located on the site of a former 450-acre dairy farm which in 1856 had been inherited by the non-agriculturally minded grandchildren of one Thomas Rhodes, comprised a building spanning seven acres surrounded by 200 acres of landscaped gardens. Built by Royal assent, the Palace was designed to further the Victorians’ ethical endeavour to cultivate a ‘higher civilisation’ - promotional advertisements promised “Healthy exercise, rational recreation” - in which fresh air and music played an equal part. [1]

The eastern transept comprised a concert room that could seat 3,000 people, while the Great Central Hall could accommodate 12,000 people and a 2,000-piece orchestra. The huge site afforded the opportunity for varied music-making, including al fresco performances on the banks of the Triple Lakes. (If you’re wondering when my ‘review’ will start, I’d ask you to bear with me, there is a point to the preamble …)

Not all have been impressed. Nikolaus Pevsner (in The Buildings of England, 1951) described the Ally Pally, as it affectionately came to be known, as ‘one of the most extensive and most prominently placed of London buildings’, but dismissively quipped that ‘there is not much else to be said about it’. And, from the start, financial over-optimism or mismanagement, what you will, threw a shadow over the Palace’s future. In the six months from November 1875, the venue ran up a £23,000 deficit and economic dire straits becoming a recurring trope, continuing as late as the 1980s when the then trustees, Haringey Council, over-spent on a refurbishment and ice-rink. Fire also repeatedly threatened to curtail the project, with the building going up in flames just 16 days after the opening and again in 1980.

Over the years, the Palace has served as a hospital for Belgian refugees, an internment camp for German and Austrian civilians from 1915-19, and as a horse racing course, among other guises. In 1935, the BBC took on the lease of part of the Palace, setting up studios is some derelict Victorian dining rooms, and on 2nd November 1936 the first television broadcast took place from the Ally Pally. Transmission was disrupted by WW2, when its transmitter was used to jam German bombers’ navigation systems, and in 1947 by a fuel crisis, but Ally Pally studios remained the BBC’s main transmitting centre for London until 1956.

Alexandra Palace Prom.jpg BBC Proms at … Alexandra Palace. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

It seems serendipitous therefore that Alfred Meeson, who, with his co-architect John Johnson, designed the Palace, had also built the Royal Albert Hall - the home of the Promenade concerts since the summer of 1941. For, this year, the BBC has chosen the Ally Pally for one of their ‘out-and-about’ Proms, in anticipation of the official reopening of the Palace’s Theatre to the public on 1st December 2018 - restored with the help of an £18.8m lottery grant, and part of a £27m restoration of Ally Pally’s east wing.

So, what better choice to grace this Victorian stage than Gilbert & Sullivan, censurers and celebrators of Victorian frailties and foibles in equal measure. Staged with slickness and style by director Jack Furness and conducted with gleeful joie de vivre by Jane Glover, Trial by Jury returned to what BBC presenter Petroc Trelawny described as the wonderfully preserved dilapidation of the Palace’s Theatre, and provided forty minutes of slight but so less satisfying pleasure.

Originally composed and rehearsed in just a few weeks, and essentially a single act of trifling tomfoolery, Trial by Jury presents an unpretentious lampooning of Gilbert’s favourite target - the English judiciary. There is no elaborate artifice in plot, lyrics or music, and no spoken dialogue: just some direct expression and gentle musical parody of Bellini and Handel. The characters, individual and choric, are one-dimensional but the message is simple and clear. Angelina (Mary Bevan) is suing Edwin (Sam Furness) for breach of promise; everyone in the court, barring the defendant, is a hypocrite with their eye not on love but money, and hankering after economic advantage.

Keel Watson ushered the BBC Singers into the courtroom with stentorian, punctilious and supercilious concern for the decorum and propriety of judicial process, and the male and female chorus members ranked themselves stage right and left, displaying a wry appreciation of G&S manners and mannerisms - though Jack Furness, in his attention to detail, sometimes overlooked practicalities: it’s impossible to kneel and raise one’s hand in solemn oath, and turn the pages of one’s score.

AP Male Chorus.jpgBBC Singers. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Sam Furness was the epitome of masculine artlessness and unconcern, frankly admitting, as he lounged easily in the ‘dock’ and drew nonchalantly on a cigarette, that he had dumped Angelina, but that was because he was tired of her. Que faire? Edwin seemed positively guiltless judged against the avaricious scheming of Bevan’s Angelina. She is “no unhappy maid” as she reminded the solicitous chorus and her faux histrionic appeals for compensation, “I love him, I love him!”, and hyperactive hyperventilating had their desired effect on Neal Davies’ equally unprincipled Judge, who vowed to ditch his ugly wife - married for her father’s wealth - and, having fined Edwin, take the newly enriched Angelina for himself. Ross Ramgobin, as Angelina’s Counsel, rivalled his client for thespian extravagance, as he urged the jury to consider the misery inflicted not by Angelina’s loss of a husband but by her financial forfeiture.

The goofery gushed along but, given that Gilbert’s lyrics are the ‘simplest’ - in diction and form - that he ever wrote for Sullivan, it’s a pity that we didn’t hear more of them. The acoustic in the Theatre is good but the patter largely defeated the cast.

Bevan, Davies, Furness.jpgMary Bevan (Angelina), Neal Davies (The Learned Judge), Sam Furness (Edwin). Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

The first part of the Prom was devoted to overtures and songs that would have found favour with the Palace’s first Victorian audiences. Glover coaxed some vivacious playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra: woodwind sparkled at the start of Sullivan’s Overture to Act 4 of The Tempest (1961-62), and here and in the Overture to Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14, rev. 1921) there was plentiful melodrama and colour. Three movements from Parry’s incidental music to The Birds (1883) proved less engaging, though there was some delicate clarinet and horn playing to admire in the Intermezzo.

Bevan sang Alfred Cellier’s ‘All alone to my eerie … Whispering breeze’ with unaffected directness and sweetness, caressing the phrases gently, and she was beautifully complemented and balanced by some sensitive string playing. The soprano was joined by Sam Furness for a beguiling rendition of Stanford’s ‘So it’s kisses you’re craving’, which balanced musical charm with dramatic causticity. Neal Davies was no more successful in the Lord Chancellor’s party piece from Iolanthe, ‘When I Went to the Bar’, than he was in the Learned Judge’s subsequent and similarly named, ‘When I, good friends, was called to the bar’. At least in the latter a context had been established for the Judge’s conceited and corrupt self-praise, but the Iolanthe number came and went in a blink of an eye, so swift was the tempo set by Glover. Though, after Davies’ first two garbed lines, she tried to put on the brakes, the damage was done, and it didn’t help that Davies’ eyes were rather glued to his word-sheet.

The best vocal item was Furness’s ardent rendition of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Onaway! Awake Beloved!’, in which warm horns and strings established a restful bed of sound from which Furness could assail the melodic peaks with assurance and strength. Here we could hear every word, and the earnestness of the sentiments was touching rather than cloying.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ally Pally was both a white elephant and economic millstone. But, it did and does represent a powerfully persuasive emblem of Victorian aspiration and culture. The success of Trial by Jury encouraged Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte to form, in 1876, the company which would present the collaborations of the Victorian age’s most celebrated comic writer and composer. At the start of the twentieth-first century, the majestic exterior of the Palace, the tastefully distressed interior of the Theatre the spacious majesty of the glass-domed East Court which forms an impressively capacious ante-room still cast a spell. Let’s hope that the magic results in both uplifting entertainment and economic success in the years to come.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Neal Davies (The Learned Judge), Mary Bevan (The Plantiff), Sam Furness (The Defendant), Ross Ramgoblin (Counsel for the Plaintiff), Keel Watson (Usher); Jack Furness (stage director), Jane Glover (conductor), BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - ‘Onaway, Awake Beloved’ (from Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast); Alfred Cellier - ‘All Alone to My Eerie … Whispering Breeze’ (from The Mountebanks); Dame Ethel Smyth - The Boatswains Mate, ‘Overture’; Arthur Sullivan - ‘When I went to the Bar’ (from Iolanthe); Charles Villiers Stanford - ‘So it’s kisses you’re craving’; Hubert Parry - The Birds, Suite (Introduction, Intermezzo, Bridal March), Prelude to Act IV of The Tempest; Arthur Sullivan - Trial by Jury.

Alexandra Palace, London; Saturday 1st September 2018.



[1] See Paul Watt, Alison Rabinovici, ‘Alexandra Palace: Music, Leisure, and the Cultivation of “Higher Civilization” in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Music and Letters, Volume 95, Issue 2, 1 May 2014: 183-212, for a detailed account of the origins, development and history of the Palace.

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):