Operetta

A sugar rush for the eyes: Glyndebourne’s The Merry Widow reviewed

In 1905, shortly before the world première of The Merry Widow, the Viennese theatre manager Wilhelm Karczag got cold feet and tried to pull it. He offered Franz Lehar hard cash to withdraw the score, and when that failed, he rushed it on under-rehearsed, using second-hand sets from an older show. Or so the story goes anyway. Karczag couldn’t know that within a decade The Merry Widow would become the most successful piece of musical theatre in human history up to that point: an all-conquering global brand that gave its name to hats, corsets, cigarettes and a rather nice cocktail (equal measures gin and vermouth, splashed with absinthe, Bénédictine and

Juicy solution to the Purcell problem: Opera North’s Masque of Might reviewed

Another week, another attempt to solve the Purcell problem. There’s a problem? Well, yes, if you consider that a composer universally agreed (on the strength of Dido and Aeneas) to be a great musical dramatist left only one stageable opera (that’d be Dido and Aeneas), but hour upon hour of theatre music that’s effectively unperformable in anything like its original context: i.e., yoked to text-heavy Restoration dramas. How to get this stuff back on stage?  The story is rudimentary – just enough to support song, dance and a thumping great moral Masque of Might, David Pountney’s new extravaganza for Opera North, is one solution, and it’s rather a fun one.

Imagine a school concert hosted by Bela Lugosi: Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer, at the Proms, reviewed

‘Audience Choice’ was the promise at the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Sunday matinee Prom, and come on – who could resist the chance to treat one of the world’s great orchestras like a colossal jukebox? Actually, this wasn’t the latest wheeze of some clueless BBC head of music: it’s a favourite party trick of the BFO and its conductor Ivan Fischer. The audience has a ‘menu’ of some 275 individual works and symphonic movements; they vote for six of them and the BFO plays their selection, unrehearsed, on the spot. Orchestral musicians never do anything unrehearsed. They hate it. But the BFO does it anyway, because they’re the best, and they

The future of opera – I hope: WNO’s Candide reviewed

Bernstein’s Candide is the operetta that ought to work, but never quite does. Voltaire’s featherlight cakewalk through human misery, set to tunes from the West Side Story guy: what’s not to like? And what can be so wrong with its twinkle-toed score that the combined rewriting efforts (and this is not remotely the full list) of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim have all failed to make it work as theatre? For my money it’s the ending. Voltaire coolly pricks his own bubble and tells us to get on with tending our gardens. Bernstein, the all-American idealist, just can’t, and he kills the whole thing dead with ‘Make Our

To die for: Grange Park Opera’s Tristan & Isolde reviewed

There are a lot of corpses on stage at the end of Charles Edwards’s production of Tristan & Isolde for Grange Park Opera. At this stage in the drama, directors tend to fade out the bloodbath, the better to focus on Isolde’s final dissolution into bliss. But as Michael Tanner argues, Tristan, like the Ring, offers no bearable solution to its central problem, however much the music – that great deceiver – might try to persuade us otherwise. You want art to tell you the truth? Wagner knew that you can’t handle the truth. He declared that in Tristan ‘from the first to the last, love shall for once find

More depravity, please: Salome, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

The first night of the new season at Covent Garden was cancelled when the solemn news came through. The second opened with a short, respectful speech from Oliver Mears, the director of opera, and a minute’s silence in which the houselights were lowered and we could gaze at the curtains, from which the huge gold-embroidered EIIR cypher had already been removed. For the first time in King Charles’s reign, we sang the national anthem to unfamiliar new words. There were shouts of ‘God Save the King!’And then the lights dimmed once more and we proceeded with the business of the evening, and the life of the Royal Opera. Britain has

An electrifying, immersive thrill: Scottish Opera’s Candide reviewed

The first part of the adventure was getting there. Out of the subway, past the tower blocks and under the motorway flyover. A quick glance at Google Maps and into a patch of litter-blown scrub. Someone bustles up alongside me: ‘Are you looking for the opera?’ I am, yes: and my guess is that the cluster of clipboard-y types in high-vis tabards next to that warehouse probably marks the entrance. We’re waved in: ‘Big Cock’ proclaims a graffiti-covered wall. There’s a stack of shipping containers, an improvised bar (cold beer and Scotch pies) and a big tented space filled with drifting crowds and that apprehensive, slightly unsettled murmur you always

Had the air of a Blue Peter Christmas special: Grange Festival’s The Yeomen of the Guard reviewed

The Yeomen of the Guard has been called the ‘English Meistersinger’ but the more you think about that, the dafter it gets. It’s not just the very obvious difference in scale and means between Wagner’s five-hour national epic and Gilbert and Sullivan’s sprightly opéra comique. Wagner’s whole drama builds to a collective affirmation of German art. The Yeomen begins by setting up a fantasy of an English golden age – the Tower of London in the 16th century – then systematically cuts it to ribbons. Act One’s gallant hero becomes Act Two’s callous seducer, whose march towards his own happy ending leaves a trail of collateral damage: a spiral of

This is how G&S should be staged: ENO’s HMS Pinafore reviewed

Until 1881, HMS Pinafore was the second-longest-running show in West End history. Within a year of its première it had broken America too; at one point there were eight competing productions on Broadway alone. The single most wrongheaded notion that still clings to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas is that they’re somehow low-rent or parochial. They were blockbuster international hits, superbly written, lavishly staged and exported far beyond the Anglosphere. Pinafore was performed in Denmark as Frigate Jutland and in Vienna, Johann Strauss was driven off stage by the runaway success of The Mikado. In the words of the operetta historian Richard Traubner, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations were ‘simply the best

Opera della Luna is a little miracle: Curtain Raisers at Wilton’s Music Hall reviewed

Arthur Sullivan knew better than to mess with a winning formula. ‘Cox and Box, based on J. Maddison Morton’s farce Box and Cox’ reads the title page of his first comic opera, composed to a libretto by F.C. Burnand a good five years before he latched up with W.S. Gilbert. ‘Those boys hit on a brilliant idea,’ Billy Wilder is supposed to have said when he saw the musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black had created from his movie Sunset Boulevard. ‘They didn’t change a thing.’ Gilbert’s comic beats are sharper and faster; and he’d doubtless have shortened it by about 15 minutes. But Burnand’s words gave the

Neither Tristan nor Isolde quite convinced: Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde reviewed

Glyndebourne is nothing if not honest. ‘In response to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions our 2021 performances of Tristan und Isolde will be presented as a concert staging, after the 2003 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff’, says the programme, and what we get is not a full production but a compromise imposed by the peculiar circumstances of August 2021. The London Philharmonic Orchestra huddles on stage. Behind them the back wall glows and fades in washes of blue and pink; in front, a stepped apron extends over the redundant orchestra pit. The singers slip on and off from the wings or, in a basic but effective trick of lighting design, appear to

A silly, bouncy delight: Glyndebourne’s In the Market for Love reviewed

Offenbach at Glyndebourne! Short of Die Soldaten with a picnic break or a period-instrument revival of Jerry Springer: The Opera, it’s hard to imagine a less probable operatic outcome— even this year. I mean, Offenbach: the saucy skewerer of middle-class pretension; the dazzling, vulgar arriviste of 19th-century opera. It couldn’t have been more incongruous had the sideburned showman himself razzed up, bass thumping, in a pimped Renault 5 and started pulling skids on the ha-ha. He’s never been staged at Glyndebourne, and it’s not hard to guess why. The last time I saw an Offenbach one-acter done in the UK, it was Croquefer, a medieval farce that climaxes with the

Drunk singers, Ravel on film and prime Viennese operetta: the addictive joys of classical YouTube

The full addictive potential of classical YouTube needs to be experienced to be understood. And let’s be honest, there are only so many lockdown videos the human spirit can take. Which is why, on a sunny spring afternoon, in the prime of life and health, I find myself watching the late John Cage stroking bits of wire with a feather. The haircuts suggest that we’re in the early 1980s, and a Ron Burgundy type is floating across the screen in a little box. ‘It’s been said that listening to John Cage’s music is like chewing sand,’ he explains, unhelpfully. It seems that we’ve also been watching a live performance by

Bleak humour, resourcefulness and wit: Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Quarantine Soirées reviewed

There’s a certain merit in bluntness. ‘Quarantine Soirées’ was what the Budapest Festival Orchestra called its response to the crisis, and if the name conveyed a certain bleak Magyar humour, the resourcefulness couldn’t be faulted. Elsewhere, orchestras were still talking optimistically about broadcasting concerts from empty halls, and (even more optimistically) about persuading online viewers to pay for them. Realising that any activity that brings 90 musicians into close proximity was probably running out of road, the BFO’s music director Ivan Fischer announced that ‘this is not the time for orchestral music’ and launched a programme of chamber recitals by the orchestra’s players, livestreamed from their rehearsal hall. Logging on