Monthly Archives: April 2012

An unrepresentative audience for Berlioz

I went to Welsh National Opera’s production of Beatrice and Benedict at the Bristol Hippodrome. This was a sumptuous production, with lavish sets and costumes, and beautifully lit as the evening turned to moonlight in the first act. But if what you’re impressed by at the end of the evening is the lighting, hasn’t something gone wrong?

There weren’t problems with the singing – the usual crop of WNO regulars did a good job – and I fear that the root of it was really in the work itself. It pains me as a Berlioz enthusiast to say this, but at the end of the day this opera really feels a bit more like extended incidental music to a cut-down version of Shakespeare’s play. Ah yes, Shakespeare. This performance was in English, and while some of the Bard’s lines were retained, this showed up that the rest of the back-translation into English didn’t really match up. At least with Berlioz’ French libretto, it’s all equally distant from the original.

I had the feeling that the production had been tailored to appeal to a particular audience, with its extravagants sets, mannered acting (everyone froze during Hero’s big aria in Act 1) and Donald Maxwell’s buffo Somarone. Now I am not someone who feels it is an offence against political correctness if those attending an artistic event do not precisely match the make-up of the local adult population in all respects; but I think this was the oldest opera audience I’ve ever been a part of, and I saw only one black person in it. Shouldn’t WNO be trying to reach a wider cross-section of Bristol?


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Ambrosian rites

I spent much of Holy Week in Milan, and was able to get to Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday services in the Cathedral. There is a tradition of elaborately choreographed liturgy there which I’ve experienced before – does it go right back to St. Ambrose, who was responsible for introducing more ceremonial?

I was particularly fortunate on Palm Sunday when I came in as part of a procession and was one of the first to be directed to the north transept, where I had a ringside view of the altar. I was right next to the choir, of about 30 men and boys. Two organs were used, the main one for accompanying the congregation, and a chamber organ with the choir (the treble soloists were miked). As tends to happen in Italy, the music didn’t really live up to the liturgy. There was some plainsong and responsorial psalms (which one could join in, as the music was printed in the service booklets) and much of the choir’s music appeared to be home-grown (they sang from copies of a hand-written score). It was not trite and not in unison, but not very interesting either.

I didn’t go to the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, but I saw a service booklet and the quality of the music appeared to be rather higher, with more plainchant and some familiar hymns. Good to see that Purcell’s Westminster Abbey has made it over the Alps! There was also a hymn to the tune of Abide with Me, which I’ve come across elsewhere in Italy.

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The Spirit of Schubert

The latest survey of a composer’s entire output on Radio 3 focused on Schubert. As I’ve said in my last posting, I was present at a live evening broadcast, but I also found time to listen to some of the rest of the programming, avoiding the ‘dedication and request’ slots for the most part.

As usual with these ventures, there was a chance to discover lesser-known pieces: for example, Schubert’s setting of a psalm in Hebrew for a Viennese synagogue. This was balanced by avoiding those pieces such as Fierrebras that I’d previously tried and failed with. Of course the programmes had to include all the Lieder (I recall the previous broadcast of all the Lieder over the space of a year to mark the anniversary of his death). It was fun to play the game of turning on the radio and trying to guess the singer; as they largely stuck to great interpreters of these songs, I was able to do this a lot of the time.

But I have one gripe. When this was done for J.S. Bach, the programming was comparable in its overall length and the number of separate pieces to be included. With Bach, the programme listings told you exactly when every last cantata and chorale prelude was due to be programmed, and details of the performers, no matter what time of day or night it went out. With Schubert, this was only done for the major works; everything else was grouped into ‘themes’. So if you had a favourite obscure song or classic performance, you could not find out when it would come round or who the singer would be. Did they broadcast Dinu Lipatti playing the Impromptus? Marian Anderson singing Death and the Maiden? I hope so, but I had no way of telling, or of making a point of catching them.

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