REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ema Nikolovska/Joseph Middleton, Leeds Lieder Festival 2024

Ema Nikolovska and Joseph Middleton. Picture: Leeds Lieder Festival

Leeds Lieder Festival 2024: Ema Nikolovska/Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds Grand Theatre, April 20

MACEDONIAN-CANADIAN mezzo soprano Ema Nikolovska, partnered by festival director Joseph Middleton, brought a delightful potpourri to her evening recital, in which they teamed Schubert and Debussy with rarities by Margaret Bonds and Nicolas Slonimsky alongside the premiere of a festival commission by Tansy Davies.

Nikolovska’s clean, nicely focused tone is allied to a lively personality that illuminates the poetryof her songs. There was a freshness to her opening Schubert group, not least in Im Frühling (In Spring).

After its penultimate verse, there was a pronounced rallentando and a long pause before she resumed. Not so long ago that would have been considered unstylish, but she made it seem natural. One could only admire, too, her treatment of the dramatic scena Der Unglückliche (The Forlorn One), a poem from Karoline Pichler’s novel Olivier. It has been called pastiche, but Nikolovska handled its emotional roller-coaster with immense conviction.

In answer to a commission from Leeds Lieder, celebrating its 20th anniversary, Tansy Davies chose to set Nick Drake’s The Ice Core Sample Says, taken from his collection The Farewell Glacier, about climate change. The poem deals memorably with the “chronicle of lost time” revealed in an ice core, with an overarching nostalgia in what is essentially a lament over mankind’s mistreatment of our planet.

Davies’s response is unexpected. Against an accompaniment that explores the extremes of the keyboard, she takes the voice slowly from very low to very high in each of a series of phrases. Later in the piece, which lasts about eight minutes, the vocal line becomes very jagged, as the narrator shows agitation at the shocking revelations coming from the ice.

Great demands are made upon the singer here, in what is essentially an instrumental line, quite the opposite of cantabile. Nikolovska was equal to them all, indeed she gave the impression of being comfortable.

Towards the end she also shakes something like maracas, as “Now the great narrator Silence takes over”. This powerful poem, replete with images, which was commendably read out beforehand, is arguably too complex for vocal setting. But Davies and Drake between them certainly made an impact.

The American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was a new name to me. Although a pianist, the bulk of her works were for solo voice; several of her spirituals were commissioned and sung by Leontyne Price. Her early Songs Of The Seasons (1935-6), settings of her favoured poet Langston Hughes, proved a delightful antidote to the Davies work, and elicited considerable virtuosity from Middleton.

Thereafter we were on more familiar ground. Debussy’s six Verlaine settings, Ariettes Oubliées, which really put him on the mélodie map, found her in idiomatic vein. She sustained a pleasing legato through Il Pleure dans Mon Cœur against the rippling piano, and ideally evoked the ennui of Spleen.

But in two Medtner songs in Rachmaninov style – Twilight with its flavour of a bar-room ballad and the sweeping lines of Sleeplessness – she showed plenty of heft.

A return to wry delicacy was the order of the day in Slonimsky’s Five Advertising Songs, commercial jingles by any other name, but with a few extra twists. This was immaculate caricature, from ‘falling asleep’ with pillowcases to grand sweeping lines for toothpaste. Nikolovska has a great sense of humour and proved it here. She topped it all off, however, with a touching Macedonian folk-song encore, which came right from the heart.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Aleko, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 15

Robert Hayward as Alfio in Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana: “Some of the finest singing he has ever delivered on this stage”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

WITH his distraught features spread across both covers of the programme in close-up, there was no doubting who was to be the anti-hero of this double bill.

Robert Hayward has made a speciality of portraying twisted psychotics – his Scarpia comes straight to mind – so the pistol-packing combination of Alfio in Mascagni’s melodrama with the title role in Rakhmaninov’s graduation exercise Aleko was right up his street.

In both, jealousy prompts his character to shoot dead the tenor, in this case the luckless Andrés Presno. Hayward rose to the occasion with some of the finest singing he has ever delivered on this stage.

Karolina Sofulak had returned to revive her 2017 production of Cavalleria Rusticana while tackling the company’s first look at Aleko. Rakhmaninov completed the latter in 1892, a mere two years after the Mascagni had caused a sensation.

Sofulak was understandably at pains to point out the parallels between the two. In close association with her designers, Charles Edwards (sets and lighting) and Gabrielle Dalton (costumes), she put Cavalleria Rusticana first, the reverse of the usual order with these two pieces.

Supplanting the sunshine and lemon blossom of Sicily with the darker but equally restrictive society of Communist Poland in the 1970s, she then – inspired by Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies on which the libretto is based – conceived Aleko as taking place in a 1990s post-hippie commune, such as Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen.

Helen Évora as Lola and Andrés Presno as Turiddu in Opera North’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Here ‘Al’, who has by now changed the latter half of his name, is trying to liberate himself from the misdemeanours of his youth as Alfio. But his fate lies within his own dark heart, and he is unable to shake it off. It was an ingenious idea. It also put into much better perspective her staging of the Mascagni, which had not made much sense previously alongside Trial By Jury.

None of this would have worked without the conviction of Hayward. He moved convincingly from being a small-town, repressed Alfio, short of one or two marbles judging by his hesitant steps and inability to control his emotions, to a supposedly wiser, more worldly Aleko, whose anger still lay only just below the surface.

As Alfio, he was seen wringing his bloodstained hands at the end of the Mascagni. He was still wringing his hands, albeit now no longer gory, when he became Aleko. Shortly afterwards, he fondly cradled the gun he had used to shoot Turiddù (while a passenger in his beaten-up taxi), before secreting it in his suitcase.

Edwards’s set for Cavalleria Rusticana was bleak, in keeping with the deprivations of the villagers, queuing at Lucia’s counter for meagre supplies which soon ran out. It was still dominated by a huge wooden cross against which Turiddù’s outstretched arms presaged his imminent demise.

Presno’s fine tenor was almost too resonant for the role, given that his attacks were relentlessly fierce, making every note sound higher than it really was. But his depiction of emotional immaturity was telling enough.

Elin Pritchard’s Zemfira in Opera North’s Aleko. Picture: Tristram Kenton

He was immensely helped by Giselle Allen’s marvellously vicious Santuzza, spitting tacks like hell-fire. Anne-Marie Owens brought all her authority to bear on Lucia, and Helen Évora’s Lola was exactly the kind of girl-next-door ingénue to catch her lover’s eye.

The set for Aleko was a total contrast, built around a flashy bar where the community seemed to be perpetually drinking or dancing (very appealingly to Tim Claydon’s choreography).

Rakhmaninov’s score has more than a suggestion of Middle Eastern flavour, especially at the start, right out of the Rimsky-Korsakov playbook. Antony Hermus latched onto this, so that his orchestra underlined the other-worldliness of the setting. Elsewhere he was quick to lend extra drama to an already highly charged atmosphere.

Aleko moves forward in a series of tableaux rather than unfolding continuously, which makes the director’s task tough. But Sofulak’s cinematic style, apparently inspired by Kieślowski, was rarely less than riveting.

Hayward’s determined baritone stole the show, with Elin Pritchard’s luscious-toned Zemfira as his faithless wife. It was a clever conceit to have Lola reappear in a vision to remind Aleko of his earlier life. Presno’s Lover had less to do here and remained much in the Turiddù mould.

Matthew Stiff as Zemfira’s father delivered a pleasing seen-it-all-before aria. The chorus relished their opportunities, especially in Aleko, while Hermus kept his orchestra at a high level of intensity. But Hayward was the true key to the evening’s success.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Albert Herring, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Dafydd Jones as Albert Herring in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture: Tom Arber

FOR the first show of Laura Canning’s reign as general director, Opera North returned to Giles Havergal’s successful production of 2013, here revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

As chamber-comedy, Albert Herring certainly benefited from the relative intimacy of the Howard Room, with the audience aligned three-deep on its long sides, facing inwards, and the action confined to the strip between. The orchestra was where the stage platform would normally be.

The production held fast to Havergal’s insistence that Loxford’s village stereotypes should be clearly differentiated but delivered a few carefully calculated extras. The opening scene was much enlivened by a parade of comely candidates for May Queen, all of whom looked extremely suitable but had to retreat dolefully for their alleged misdemeanours. There was a little caper by the judging panel when Lady Billows acquiesced in the choice of Albert.

Dafydd Jones, who has been a Leeds Lieder Young Artist, made his company debut in the title role with considerable aplomb, graduating smoothly from downtrodden drip to born-again bravado. His Act 2 solos as he fantasised about a better life were excellently paced.

Katie Bray as Nancy and Dominic Sedgwick as Sid in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture:Tom Arber

He was well supported by Dominic Sedgwick’s breezy Sid, whose aria was nicely nuanced, and Katie Bray’s assured and engaging Nancy; their love-duet was a breath of fresh air in this stuffy village.

Judith Howarth was in fine fettle as Lady Billows, superbly bolstered by Heather Shipp’s Florence Pike, who was if anything even more waspish: a formidable duo. William Dazeley, the only holdover from the original cast, was an avuncular vicar, wringing his hands in diffidence, matched in character-acting by Paul Nilon’s out-of-his-depth mayor.

Amy Freston’s twittery schoolmarm and Richard Mosley-Evans’s blustery local copper added further fuel to the farce. There was always the feeling that Claire Pascoe’s severe Mrs Herring meant well, a feather in her cap.

 The threnody over Albert’s casket-to-be, which was overlaid by his tye-marked jacket, was beautifully delivered, which made Albert’s reincarnation all the more effective.

Rosa Sparks as Emmie, left, Willow Bell as Cis and Oliver Mason as Harry in Opera North’s Albert Herring. Picture: Tom Arber

There was a strong sense of a generation gap between the young and old in this village, enhanced by the three children, who were ably led by Rosa Sparks as Emmie, a promising debutante here.

 Willow Bell as Cissie and Oliver Mason as Harold were her lively underlings, all encouraged to sing properly rather than pseudo-shout. Their alternates were Lucy Eatock and Dougie Sadgrove; all four are members of the company’s Children’s Chorus. They broke into dance at the slightest excuse (movement director Tim Claydon) which added to the fun.

Vital to the success of the whole evening was the stylish contribution by Garry Walker’s orchestra, whose interludes were potently atmospheric, notably in Act 2.

Diction was not always as clean as it might have been, and some of the voices strayed into territory too forceful for this arena, but those were minor misgivings in the face of Tyler-Hall’s admirable sense of ensemble. This site-specific production could not tour, though sold out weeks in advance. It will, however, be streamed on Operavision later this year.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival: Day 2

Jess Dandy: “That endangered species, a true contralto”

Jess Dandy/Martin Roscoe & Robin Tritschler/Christopher Glynn, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 29

THOSE of us who had not encountered Jess Dandy before, your correspondent included, cannot have avoided reading that she had been likened to Kathleen Ferrier in a national newspaper.

It is an unfortunate comparison and should be dropped before it becomes burdensome. She is indeed that endangered species, a true contralto, which alone entitles her to our attention. She may in time become the one and only Jess Dandy – but she is not Ferrier.

I confess that what initially drew my attention was her accompanist: Martin Roscoe is a supreme musician and a very busy one. Anyone who claims his time deserves our respect, especially since he is most often found as a solo performer.

With that rant out of the way, we may concentrate on Dandy’s lunchtime programme, which opened with Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger before moving onto more familiar territory with Falla, Wolf and Tchaikovsky, each of her five groups therefore in a different language.

Oddly enough, her diction in Beach’s three Robert Browning songs was almost consonant-free, but her tone was richly textured which excited anticipation.

Martin Roscoe: “Supreme musician and a very busy one”

In four unrelated songs by Boulanger, three from her teenage years, she penetrated the surface better. In two Maeterlinck poems, her high ending to ‘Reflets’, finding consolation in the moon, was beautifully controlled and the illusory ‘Attente’ (Waiting) was properly bleak. The prospect of Ulysses’s return to Ithaca brought compensatory joy to her tone.

Falla’s settings of seven traditional Spanish folksongs generally needed a lighter touch to match Roscoe’s impeccable staccatos. These works look easier on paper than they really are.

It was only when Dandy came to Wolf’s Mörike settings (1888) that her diction really began to shine. ‘Er ist’s’ (Spring Is Here) was wonderfully ecstatic, rounded off by the piano’s peerless postlude. She had a real feel for the bitter-sweet ‘Verborgenheit’ (Seclusion) and danced nimbly as the water-sprite Reedfoot alongside the piano’s curlicues. Both performers revelled in the dramatic possibilities of ‘Der Feuerreiter’ (The Fire-rider), while ending peacefully.

Dandy was equally well-suited to four Tchaikovsky songs. Voice and piano neatly intertwined in a Tolstoy poem about spring. There was a wonderfully pained melisma at the end of ‘I was a little blade of grass’ (the girl had been married off against her will). Even if the final climax of ‘Can it be day?’ was not quite full enough, we knew she had these songs in her bloodstream; Roscoe’s postlude was another little masterpiece.

This young lady certainly has talent. She can now afford to be less concerned about delivering perfect tone and concentrate more on acting with her voice.

Robin Tritschler: “Particularly satisfying occasion”

The second evening supplied my fourth recital of the festival. But it was the first in which the singer used no music. Thirty years ago, this would not have been a cause for comment. But times have changed and musicians are no longer routinely learning their scores by heart. One might have thought that during the ‘downtime’ provided by the pandemic, this might have changed. But no.

The hero in question was tenor Robin Tritschler, whose first half – ‘Illuminated Music’ – was English, Britten’s own works framing his realisations of Croft and Purcell. After half-time, we had ‘Illuminating Songs’ from further afield, eight composers stretching from Schubert to Henry Mancini. His admirable partner was Christopher Glynn.

Coloratura flowed easily in ‘Let The Florid Music Praise’ (On This Island) and Croft’s A Hymn To Divine Musick turned the temperature up further. All his Purcell set was characterised by a focus and intensity that was communicated all the more directly by the absence of a music-stand between audience and singer.

‘Music For A While’ enjoyed crispness in both voice and piano, which spilled over strongly into the finish of ‘Sweeter Than Roses’. The darting sections and crazy swings of ‘Mad Bess’ were finely wrought, with Glynn injecting just the right level of fire without dominating.

Christopher Glynn: “Injecting just the right level of fire without dominating “. Picture: Gerard Collett

Britten’s Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine was hugely convincing, a tenderly felt duet that did full justice to Quarles’s spiritual paraphrase from the Song Of Solomon. Glynn’s flowing piano alongside Tritchler’s vocal freedom came to a close of the utmost serenity.

Moonlight suffused virtually all the second half. The atmosphere was movingly set by Schubert’s incomparable setting of Leitner’s ‘Der Winterabend’: the piano’s seamless line matched the tenor’s legato.

Fauré’s ‘Clair de Lune’ conjured intimacy while Hahn’s ‘L’heure Exquise’ delivered perfumed scents. Mancini’s nostalgic ‘Moon River’, with its Beethovenian opening was nicely balanced by Howells’s setting of De la Mare’s ‘Full Moon’, which disappeared into a niente finish.

Tritschler really opened out in the climactic moments of Liza Lehmann’s ‘Ah, Moon Of My Delight’ (In A Persian Garden), after which Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Big Lady Moon’ made the perfect encore. This was a particularly satisfying occasion, with both musicians on excellent form.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leeds Lieder Festival 2022: Day 1

Dorothea Röschmann: German soprano, making her north of England debut

Dorothea Röschmann and Joseph Middleton; Wallis Giunta, Sean Shibe and Adam Walker, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 28

LEEDS Lieder was back in its usual springtime slot and all the better for that. More to the point, the line-up was as star-studded as ever.

On the first evening of this 11th festival, German soprano Dorothea Röschmann made her north of England debut in tandem with festival supremo Joseph Middleton as her piano-partner in a programme of Schumann, Mahler, Wolf and Wagner.

There is something reassuring about hearing native Germans in lieder: whatever else, they have this repertory in their bloodstream.

Schumann’s settings of five letters and poems attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots delve into the heart of Mary’s isolation after imprisonment by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

They are an unusual starter for a programme, but Röschmann handled them with considerable refinement, capturing the happy reminiscences of France – Schumann’s major-minor alternations – and prayerful after the birth of Mary’s son.

There was no escaping Mary’s desolation at 19 years’ imprisonment and her final prayer before death was poignant indeed in Roschmann’s account.

Six of Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn made a welcome contrast, none more so than the opening ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Little Rhine Legend), which was turned into a cutesy dance, full of sparkle.

There was a relentless piano momentum in the tale of the starving child, ‘Das Irdische Leben’ (Life On Earth), representing the mill-stream. She cleverly juxtaposed two duets featuring young girls disappointed in love, the one flirting in vain, the other – touchingly here – discovering that her soldier sweetheart is just a mirage: he is already dead.

Wolf’s four Mignon songs, sung by the teenager abducted from Italy by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, are the epitome of yearning, as she longs to return home. I

n the opening one, Kennst du as Land? – which she actually sang last – there was a lovely moment where she switched mid-phrase from a fortissimo at the plunging torrent to pose the title question much more quietly, rounding off the song with a delightful portamento in the final phrase. It was typical of her attention to detail. Middleton shadowed her closely throughout.

Written in the run-up to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s five settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a well-heeled silk merchant (and patron of the composer), developed out of his infatuation for her.

They are essentially love-songs, whose voluptuous harmonies – twice directly prefiguring Tristan – were mirrored in Roschmann’s lush treatment. Her gear-changing into chest tone was not always entirely smooth, but she and Middleton captured their heady atmosphere to a tee, notably in the “stop the world, I want to get off” implications of ‘Stehe Still!’ (Stand Still). This was a most satisfying opening recital, if not quite a memorable one.

Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta’s late-night recital, given with guitarist Sean Shibe and flautist Adam Walker, was a mixed bag. She is an engaging personality, whose prowess as an actress she has already proved here, and there was no doubting the skills of her two partners – especially Shibe, in a wide variety of styles – but their protest songs from the Americas were too diffuse to make a coherent whole.

Taking their title from one of the songs, ‘The Revolution Smells Of Jasmine’, they encompassed racism, revolution, female emancipation and “patriarchal oppression”: art as politics, in other words, but this scattergun approach missed too many targets.

Nevertheless, the programme had its moments. Four songs by the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez had the unmistakeable tang of Portuguese fado about them, as if their essence had spilled over from neighbouring Brazil: Alfonsina’s heartache was palpable and Gringa Chaqueña evoked a smoky underworld. Juana Azurduy, the song which included the evening’s title, was more upbeat, even triumphal.

No South American set would have been complete without Astor Piazzolla. Sure enough, the instruments dipped into L’Histoire du Tango, before Giunta conjured a vivid ‘Café’ and a frisky ‘Bordel 1900’, where the syncopation was succulent.

North America was not forgotten. Giunta gave her fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and a couple of Joan Baez numbers. All were cleanly done in good folk-style, but lacked a certain earthiness.

The most harrowing moment came in Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’, written in 1937 and made famous in song by Billie Holiday two years later: the ‘fruit’ was the bodies of black victims of lynching, swinging in the breeze. Not at all comfortable.

At her best, Giunta has a witty, wacky side that she kept under wraps here, in the name of protest of course, although almost as if she were under some restraint. But she is a total professional and had also chosen her accompanists wisely. They responded with lively duets as well as unfailing support.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton

German soprano Nikola Hillebrand: British recital debut

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, May 1

LEEDS Lieder Festival’s closing recital offered an unexpected surprise. In the absence of the advertised singer, we enjoyed the British recital debut of German soprano Nikola Hillebrand.

It was an occasion that none present will forget, enhanced by the presence of pianist Joseph Middleton on top form.

Hillebrand offered a heady mix of Schubert, Brahms and Strauss. She is the complete package, a lovely well-focused sound allied to charming presence and the ability to penetrate right to the heart of a song within a few bars, helped by a wide range of facial

Conversely, she remains rooted to the spot and makes sparing use of hand gestures. Any
young singer considering a career in lieder would do well to emulate her technique in all these areas.

At the centre of her recital, right after the interval, she gave Strauss’s Mädchenblumen, Op 22, four settings of poetry by Felix Dahn, products of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) which liken young ladies to a variety of flowers.

Although dedicated to a tenor, Hans Giessen, who was a member of Weimar Court Theatre with Strauss in the late 1880s, they work equally well with soprano. They are little heard because of their taxingly high tessitura, but in Hillebrand’s hands they were pure magic, seemingly posing no difficulties; she negotiated them so smoothly that the vocal lines carried a marvellous inevitability. Cornflowers, poppies, ivy, waterlily, she caressed them all playfully.

She had begun with a mixed bag of Schubert, warming up sensibly with ‘Der Vollmond Strahlt’ (The Full Moon Shines), the relatively low-lying Romanze from the incidental music to Rosamunde.

Two songs setting poets used only by once by Schubert made a nice contrast. Karoline Klenke’s ‘Heimliches Lieben’ (Secret Love) found her sharing a confidence, whereas in Anton Platner’s ‘Die Blumensprache’ (The Language Of Flowers), which is also about a type of secrecy, she twinkled with excitement.

The nostalgia of Goethe’s ‘Erster Verlust’ (First Loss) prepared the ground for his ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ (Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel). Chestnut it may be, but it sounded anything but here, imbued with an anxious urgency and reaching two peaks of desperation, the second stronger than the first.

The refrain “Die männer sind méchant” (Men are rogues) – whose motto phrase is repeated at the end of each verse – ended this group wittily.

Love was a major feature of her Brahms songs, beginning very quietly with the last of Tieck’s 15 poems in the cycle Die Schöne Magelone, ‘Treue Liebe Dauert Lange’ (True Love Abides).

There was an even more enchanting pianissimo in the second verse of ‘Wiegenlied’ (Lullaby), another chestnut she polished anew. In between, she made a little drama from ‘Von Ewiger Liebe’ (Eternal Love) and was a forceful witch in ‘Salome’.

After the flower songs mentioned earlier, the remainder of her Strauss group steered a middle course through several favourites. By now we needed no reminder of her powers, but there were still some lovely moments from both performers. They kept ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) extremely light, generating real ecstasy; after a broader second half, its climactic moment was their finest of the evening.

Following a moving ‘Allerseelen’ (All Souls’ Day), there was girlish glee in the pitter-patter of beating hearts (‘Schlagende Herzen’) and a beautifully controlled lullaby in Eichendorff’s ‘Meinem Kinde’ (To My Child).

They finished with John Henry Mackay’s ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), its pin-drop ending
conjured by immaculate control in Middleton’s pianissimo. A Britten arrangement of a Scottish folksong made the ideal encore, with Hillebrand standing to Middleton’s left to read the score; no-one minded in the least.

This was a highly auspicious debut, which must surely lead to many invitations to return to this country, including Leeds again, please.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Leeds Lieder

Ian Bostridge: “His stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric,” says reviewer Martin Dreyer. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 30

SONG recitals nowadays are generally considered to be duos, with voice and piano on an equal footing. Long gone are the times when the singer had star billing and Joe Bloggs, in much smaller letters, was “at the piano”.

For this Schubert recital, however, despite the confluence of two stars in the Schubertian firmament, who deservedly drew the biggest house of the festival so far, the occasion was really only about one person.

Ian Bostridge is an extremely talented tenor, not to say a highly intelligent one. But his stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric, to the point where he is becoming hard to watch. It is not just that he cannot stay still: he roams the bend in the piano, sometimes even leans into it with his back to the audience, then darts out to front-stage and back again, all the while contorting his slim figure into angular postures.

Furthermore, he is off on his own tangent, rarely engaging the audience directly. He often starts a phrase looking into the auditorium, but his chin soon descends into his chest and he stares at his feet. His expression is generally pained – no-one does angst better – but he finds it hard to lighten up. There was only one detectable smile in this whole recital.

All of this puts his pianist at a disadvantage. There is practically no eye contact possible between them: the pianist never knows where on the platform he may have got to.

These things are important because a lieder recital is so much more than mere vocal display. It is an unveiling, at the most intimate level, of the composer’s reaction to a piece of poetry and it requires the closest co-operation between singer and pianist, with the former’s every hand gesture or facial expression tailored to assist the message.

When there is as much physical activity as Bostridge generated here, it ceases to be meaningful and becomes merely a distraction, even an annoyance.

Imogen Cooper is one of our great Schubertians, but she was up against it from the start. She took the line of least resistance and played with never-failing style, but she rarely strayed beyond safe territory when it came to asserting herself. Too often she had to allow Bostridge to hold onto the spotlight, when he should have deferred to her and let her illuminate Schubert’s intentions.

The menu was alluring enough: the 14 songs of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (not a song-cycle but a posthumous title imposed by his publisher) separated by four more settings by Johann Seidl (whose Die Taubenpost ends Schwanengesang).

Without the visuals, there was actually some excellent singing. Bostridge minimises the vibrato in his voice, reserving it for special, often warmer, moments. That is fine, particularly when a fortepiano is in use (it wasn’t here). But it is counterbalanced by the extreme tension in his sound, doubtless brought on by his stressful stage persona.

The first seven songs of Schwanengesang are settings of Ludwig Rellstab. Their lyricism was amply conveyed by Cooper, beautifully liquid for the brooklet running through Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) and light as a feather in Frühlingssehnsucht (Spring Longing).

Bostridge, in contrast, was apt to home in on the moments of anguish, although his dead slow “goodnight” at the close of Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s Foreboding) was effective indeed.

Similarly, the piano delivered a melting postlude to Ständchen (Serenade) and was wonderfully staccato throughout the galloping in Abschied (Farewell), while our tenor was happier in the cutting pain of Aufenthalt (Resting Place) and the utter isolation of In Der Ferne (Far Away).

Where the Rellstab songs seemed cousins of Die Schöne Mullerin in their yearning for the distant beloved (with echoes of Beethoven), we were much closer to darker Winterreise territory for the reminder of the evening: the Seidl interlude and the Heine songs that make up most of the rest of Schwanengesang, all of them from the last three years of Schubert’s life. The sombre tone was struck at once in Seidl’s Sehnsucht (Longing). Bostridge’s restlessness was certainly in tune with much of the poetry, although more of his purely physical activity might have been channelled into the voice.

During the last two Heine songs, Bostridge really began to show respect for the texts and kept his body much stiller. Am Meer (By The Sea) was almost a daydream and the sheer horror of Der Doppelganger (The Ghostly Double) was notably eerie. Der Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) came as welcome relief at the close, given by both performers with rhythmic zest.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Carmen, Leeds Grand Theatre

Chrystal E. Williams in the title role in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

OPERA North was riding high coming into this new Edward Dick production.

Buoyant through lockdown with multiple streamed events via its own digital platform ON Demand, its backstage efforts were centred on a huge Music Works development.

The outcome of this is the new Howard Opera Centre, named after its principal benefactor Dr Keith Howard, who contributed some 60 per cent of the £18.5 million cost. It will house management and rehearsal studios for the company itself, while providing educational spaces for youngsters to explore their potential.

Within months, a new bar and restaurant with public access will open next to the Howard Assembly Room (now freed exclusively for smaller-scale events), the result of imaginative enclosure of a former Victorian street.

Camila Titinger as Micaëla and Erin Caves as Don José in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Sadly, all this excitement did not generate a Carmen to do it justice. It is a besetting sin of Carmen producers that they feel the need to re-interpret Bizet, not to say Mérimée, in tune with modern attitudes.

This runs a serious risk of dumbing down, even presumption: this show’s Carmen, Chrystal E. Williams, was quoted in the programme as declaring that “it would be easy just to do a conventional Carmen”, as if convention were a dirty word – or easy.

It is hard to portray an incorrigible man-eater as a saint, albeit one who is the figment of solely male imaginations. Indeed, after Opera North’s last attempt at the work, Daniel Kramer’s brutalist affair ten years ago, no-one would have been surprised if the company had played this one straight down the middle.

Instead, what we have is a good night out, but with little relevance to the original. Time and place are not identified in Colin Richmond’s sets, but we can tell that this is a border town. Since the smugglers are dealing in drugs, we have every reason to assume that we are on the United States-Mexico border.

Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo with members of the Chorus of Opera North. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The action opens in a bordello masquerading as a night-club, whose clientele is mainly in uniform, doubtless drawn by the illuminated ‘GIRLS’ on scaffolding dominating the scenario. Not exactly an advertisement for women’s lib, especially given female staff sashaying around in flimsy underwear, to the designs of Laura Hopkins.

If these girls are smoking anything, it is coke, not cigarettes. Still, it has to be said, the ladies of the chorus bravely put their best foot forward; if they feel uncomfortable, it certainly does not show.

Immediately noticeable is the sparkling form of the orchestra, with Garry Walker at the helm for the first time as music director, a year later than planned. Theirs is much the most positive contribution to the evening.

Walker keeps rhythms consistently crisp but is equally alive to atmosphere: nerve-jangling chromatics in the card scene, for example, and velvet horns in Micaela’s song a little later. His tenure is off to a cracking start.

Nando Messias as Lillas Pastia: “Makes several androgynous incursions during the second half”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Neither of the principal pair is vocally quick out of the blocks and he has to gentle them into the fray. Williams is lowered on a swing onto the night-club stage, to be embroiled at once in a fan-dance: it is an eye-catching entrance, in keeping with her charm.

When the stage swivels and we see the ‘real’ Carmen – at her make-up table, wig removed, cuddling what we assume is her daughter – her mezzo, although still light, begins to bite. But it is not until Act 3 that we hear what might have been: genuine passion.

The same applies to Don José. Erin Caves only joined the cast five days ahead of curtain-up, Covid having effectively removed two previous candidates. His safely surly opening is understandable, but does little to convince of his interest in Carmen or offer any reason for her pursuit of him.

If there is any electricity at their first encounter, it is low-voltage, like Caves’ tenor. It is only when his bile is up, much later, that he finds real resonance. His eventual throttling of Carmen prolongs her agony unjustifiably.

Erin Caves as Don José and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo arrives on an electrically-powered bucking bronco, a cowboy not a toreador; there is no hint of the bull-ring. The swagger of his ‘Toreador’ song certainly raises the vocal temperature but thereafter gradually dissipates, lessening the likelihood that he would offer José any real threat. So when José chases him across the scaffolding that now stands in for a mountain fortress, we are entitled to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Camila Titinger gives an engaging Micaela, whose aria is a touch short on warmth; she is mistakenly encouraged to make much of her pregnancy. Amy Freston’s Frasquita and Helen Évora’s Mercedes are tirelessly flighty, raising everyone’s spirits, while the spivvy smugglers of Dean Robinson and Stuart Laing bring an element of light relief. Matthew Stiff is a firm if stolid Zuniga.

With the Lillas Pastia of Nando Messias making several androgynous incursions during the second half, there is no end to the mixed messages of this ill-focused production. Thank heaven we have five children who know exactly what they have to do, working with a chorus that does its level best to sound persuasive. But the saving grace is the orchestra – focused on unvarnished Bizet.

Martin Dreyer

Further performances on October 26 and 28, then on tour until November 19, returning to Leeds in February 2022.