A bewitching production of Britten’s Death in Venice from ENO

Death in Venice ENO
Benjamin Britten’s final opera definitely does not make for easy watching. Based upon Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice follows the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach as he becomes increasingly obsessed with a young Polish boy, Tadzio. Despite the opulence of the composer’s orchestration, the material itself is often sparse and Aschenbach’s gradual degradation can quickly become uncomfortable for audience members. ENO’s revival of Deborah Warner’s 2007 production combined this tension with a sense of enchantment, meaning that Aschenbach’s fantasies were simultaneously indulged and reviled.
John Graham-Hall gave a sympathetic portrayal of Aschenbach. Even as the writer descended into a state of degradation, scuttling about the stage in the grip of passion, Graham-Hall managed to retain the last shreds of dignity of this ‘successful, honoured’ public figure. Even though Graham-Hall sang for a large portion of the opera (nearly 3 hours), he gave a consistent and vivid portrayal of the character.
Although Aschenbach musically dominates the opera, Graham-Hall shared the spotlight with the other singers. He was well-matched by Andrew Shore: singing seven baritone roles, Shore’s upper range was faultless. The intense dialogue between Shore (as the Voice of Dionysus) and Tim Mead (the Voice of Apollo) was a definite highlight.
Equally important in their contribution to the drama were the dancers. Tadzio’s beauty is a notable difference between Thomas Mann’s novella and Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, and Kim Brandstrup’s graceful choreography (incorporating elements of martial arts) helped to emphasise the boy’s physical prowess and youth. As Tadzio, Sam Zaldivar was poised and thoughtful, appearing somewhat set apart from the other frolicking youths.
Tom Pye’s sets were simple but effective, blending hues of black, navy and blue to create a blurred Venetian vista. The backdrop of scrawled writing in the opening scene drew attention to Aschenbach’s troubled psyche, inviting further connections to Berg’s Wozzeck.
The nuanced scenery was complimented by Ed Gardner’s attention to the subtleties of Britten’s orchestration. From severe strings to magical bell sounds and the comparative starkness of piano and voice, Gardner and the ENO orchestra enveloped the audience further into the surreal world of Aschenbach.
Despite the sobering plot, ENO’s Death in Venice still managed to mesmerise. With vivid characterisation, well-judged scenery and the orchestra on top form, this was a thought-provoking production.


A Master Craftsman: the Ashmolean Museum’s Stradivarius Exhibition

With collections spanning from the Neolithic era to the present, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is already a cultural hotspot. The museum’s new exhibition sees it add yet another feather to its cap: until 11th August 2013, it plays host to the UK’s first Stradivarius exhibition. Boasting a collection of 21 instruments by the Antonio Stradivari, the exhibition offers the opportunity to trace the development of the master craftsman’s designs throughout his career.
Before viewing the instruments themselves, visitors watch an introductory video and are acquainted with the method of making a violin. A step-by-step description is accompanied by the appropriate examples, demonstrating the sheer complexity of the process (and making the instruments all the more worthy of admiration). A number of Stradivari’s original tools, models and patterns are on display alongside the craftsman’s letters to his clients. The exhibition contextualises the craftsman as part of a broader North Italian set of instrument makers (although, frustratingly, there is still much biographical information to be uncovered).
Even though I am not a string player, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the instruments produced by Stradivari. Besides violins, the exhibition also features examples of cello, mandolin and viola. The instruments are intrinsically beautiful: the grain of the wood and attention to detail justify the desirability of the instruments and explain why they are so often held in reserve by collectors. The plaques on each case detail the date of each instrument, along with any distinguishing features (including examples of the ‘Long Pattern’ phase) or notable owners (such as the distinguished violinist and composer Sarasate).
The exhibition contains eleven instruments from Stradivari’s ‘Golden Age’ (1700-1720), including the ‘Viotti’ violin (produced in 1709) and the Ashmolean’s own treasure ‘The Messiah’ of 1716. A personal favourite was the miniature fiddle designed to be held in the crook of the arm: despite its diminutive proportions, it displays the same painstaking care as Stradivari’s other instruments. I found the development of the instruments after their release from the workshop especially fascinating: many have been altered to bring them into line with more recent models. The influence of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume could be strongly felt throughout the exhibition: the luthier purchased 144 Stradivari instruments in his lifetime, making such bemusing changes as a tailpiece carved with an image of Joan of Arc (as in the 1709 ‘La Pucelle’ violin). Many instruments display signs of wear and tear, whether faded varnish or a scattering of pockmarks across the surface. Although they may be less than perfect, such marks show that the instruments have had a life beyond the display case.
The walls of the room displaying the instruments are covered silhouettes of famous names who have owned Stradivari, emphasising the enduring appeal of the instruments. A prominent figure throughout the exhibition is the virtuoso violinist James Ehnes. Ehnes marked the opening of the display with a gala concert in the Sheldonian, and is one of several musicians who demonstrate and discuss the instruments.
Although I did not opt for the audio guide, I would definitely suggest that other visitors make use of it: there was relatively little information accompanying each instrument, and I was left feeling that my experience would have been much enriched with it. The guide also features a demonstration of each instrument.
Whether you are a string player or not, the exhibition makes for a brilliant insight into the creations of this esteemed instrument maker.
The Ashmolean Museum’s Stradivarius Exhibition runs until 11th August 2013.Tickets are £6 (£4 concessions; under-18s free). For more information, visit http://www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/stradivarius/

Review: Grimes on the Beach

The set for Grimes on the Beach

The set for Grimes on the Beach

Besides its international concert life (with the nearby Snape Maltings hosting a Proms series and the Aldeburgh Festival), Aldeburgh is perhaps best known for its excellent fish and chips. Although many of Monday’s visitors were indeed clutching bags of steaming chips from the Golden Galleon, their principal reason for flocking to the town was for a landmark musical event: Grimes on the Beach.
Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes opened this year’s Aldeburgh festival in commemoration of the composer’s centenary celebrations, and the opera’s migration to the beach emphasises the importance of the work’s local connection. Britten himself lived in Aldeburgh (his home from 1957, The Red House, has recently reopened), and the town plays an important role in the drama: the prologue takes place in the Moot Hall (just metres down the beach from the performance), and fishermen still bring the day’s catches into the huts dotted along the shoreline. However, it was the presence of the sea which truly brought the opera to life. The crashing waves and cries of soaring seagulls grounded the drama on the very beach which Britten frequented, and the chill wind carried the unmistakeable salty tang to the audience huddled in their scarves and hats over Thermos flasks.
Leslie Travers’ set was comprised of a number of fishing boats, some upturned as if thrown from the waves in a violent storm. Wonky lampposts sat along two sections of boardwalk, with wooden ladders and scattering of barrels helping to create a sense of vernacular construction. The 1800-strong audience were divided between tiered seating and the pebble beach, with many taking advantage of the wandering hot drink vendors.
The production was visually and dramatically stunning. The Mosquito fighter which looped over the set introduced the 1940s setting: a reference to Britten’s status as a conscious objector in light of the opera’s conflict between individual and society. The 8:30 pm beginning was carefully calculated to ensure that the sky would be dark by the storm sequence to great effect: after ‘What Harbour Shelters Peace’, Alan Oke remained stood on top of a fishing boat, his arms spread wide and black waterproof coat buffeted in the wind as the opening notes of the storm Interlude rang out. Much of the theatrical impact came from the chorus: floral tea dresses were gradually replaced by dark hues as they evolved into a menacing mob. Tim Albery’s dramatic vision embraced the setting: the procession to hunt down Grimes in Act II set off down the beach, with the beat of the drum and crunching of pebbles gradually receding into the distance to spine-tingling effect.
Albery and his team valiantly battled the elements, and for the most part triumphed. Steuart Bedford conducted from within a tin-roofed dugout in the beach, synchronising the singers with a pre-recorded audio track of chorus (to strengthen sound) and orchestra. Recording and live performance were well-balanced, and the blustery weather barely interfered with microphones. The performers managed to hide their discomfort at the wintry weather well: the nieces still sauntered about in summer dresses, and barely a shiver could be seen. Lucy Carter’s lighting was most effective, from lightning flashes during the storm sequence to atmospheric hues sensitively coordinated with the darkening sky.
The solo roles were excellent. Although Alan Oke’s performance struggled to reconcile the violent and mellow sides to the character of Grimes, his final soliloquy made for an appropriately heart-rending climax to the opera. Giselle Allen’s crisp tones lent an air of authority to Ellen Orford (making her realisation of Grimes’ guilt all the more poignant), while David Kempster’s Captain Balstrode was at once commanding and sympathetic. The coquettish nieces (played by Lexi Hutton and Charmian Bedford) were also a highlight, adding a touch of comedy to the proceedings.
It is a testament to the vision of Aldeburgh Music that it can pull off such a technical and artistic feat with such success. Grimes on the Beach was a brilliant way to commemorate the Britten centenary, and those who were lucky enough to be there will remember this most memorable staging for many years to come.

Review: James Ehnes and La Serenissima in Oxford

“The name Stradivarius had an air of magic to me.” Virtuoso violinist James Ehnes’ statement manages to capture the air of reverence which underpinned Friday’s Music at Oxford concert. The gala marked the opening of the UK’s first Stradivarius exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and two violins from the exhibition were on temporary release for the evening. Alongside Ehnes’ own “Marsick” instrument of 1715, he played the 1666 “Serdet” – the earliest instrument on display – and the 1711 “Parke”.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

A kaleidoscopic performance: ‘Modulations of Sound’ by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Modulations of Sound
The phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” certainly didn’t apply to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert last night. The poster consisted of an arresting dash of colour twisted into a Mobius strip, matching the kaleidoscopic aural soundworld. The concert was part of the Debut Sounds series to celebrate the LPO’s young talent schemes, with Knussen’s Music for a Puppet Court and Grisey’s Modulations framing four pieces by Leverhulme Young Composers. Members of the LPO were joined by Foyle Future Firsts Development Programme artists. A respectable audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall enthusiastically received both composers and performers alike.
Knussen’s Music for a Puppet Court opened the concert, testing the ensemble’s technical and expressive capacities. The outer movements of this musical puzzle each present three lines (leaving the fourth cantus firmus line concealed), developing these ideas in the two inner movements. The playfulness suggested by the work’s title was certainly captured by the LPO: the second movement fizzed with energy, balancing continual textural adjustments with an overall conception. The outer movements demanded greater lyricism from the players, but conductor Clement Power set a sturdy tempo which resisted sentimentality.
Hannah Kendall’s The Great Dark followed. Inspired by Guyanese political activist Martin Carter’s writings, the three-movement piece explored ideas of folklore, creation and cosmology. The piece gradually focused inwards, from the portentous bass notes of the opening to the contemplative middle movement, and culminating with the intricate webs of the third movement. These suddenly halted, giving the impression that the process of creation had suddenly been interrupted.
The intertwining of musical lines was also a focus of Daniel Kidane’s From Points to Plane. Kidane treated rhythm as a key element in the development of these lines, creating a sense of propulsion which created a sense of drama.
The beginning of Stephen Willey’s React was interrupted by a mobile phone ringing (one of three such interruptions in the concert), and Power’s decision to restart the piece was met with applause by the audience. React proved to be the highlight of the concert: a dynamic, visceral piece which gripped from the start and wouldn’t let go. With whooping horns, frantically hammered octaves from the piano and jagged string rhythms, the tenacious energy of Willey’s composition saw it receive the most animated audience reaction.
Peter Yarde Martin was the last of the young composers to have his piece performed. Auguries is essentially a theme and variations upon an eight-note melody, but Yarde Martin managed to manipulate the sense of time to hypnotic effect: although the pulse remained constant, the end of the piece was spacious and all-embracing.
Julian Anderson’s spoken introduction to the evening stated that Gérard Grisey’s 1976 composition Modulations had only been performed once before in the UK. Last night’s performance certainly gave a strong case for more frequent revivals. The continual textural transformation was subtly achieved, blurring the listener’s idea of time. The low E2 note is the element from which the musical material is derived: there is no easily categorisable form to the piece, but instead a free exploration of the partials (or overtones) which spring from this note. The appearance of the note itself acts as a catalyst, triggering new treatments of the partials. The ensemble responded well to these changes of mood, and managed to fuse the confrontation of the beginning to the celestial episodes later on.
The audience were clearly just as engaged by the works of the young composers as those by Knussen and Grisey, aided by the vibrant performances. Altogether, a compelling evening.