Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Kurt Awards for Summer 2013: the nominations

Well, the Academy has sat, and come up with the list of nominations for the Kurt Awards of 2013.

They sat in my bed, because the Academy (like all effective Academies) consists of one person. And this time its ME!

I've spent April to October in Germany, and I've had a splendid time in opera houses, theatres and concert-halls, mostly in Berlin, but with side trips to such as Vienna, Dessau and Biedenkopf. Most of what I've seen was good to great, very little was self-indulgent and weak. So what was the best?  Well, I don't do 'best this' and 'best that'. That's far too presumptuous. Chuckle. Even for an Academy with my credentials!

I do 'my favourites'. The people and productions -- large or small -- which have given me the most pleasure. And after mature consideration and discussion with myself, here they are! 

My favourite opera performances :

Alex Esposito in LUCREZIA BORGIA
Andrezej Dobber in RIGOLETTO
Roberto Tagliavini in ATTILA

Agnes Zwierko in BALL IM SAVOY
Alexandra Hutton in LES CONTES D’HOFFMAN

I am putting Madame Gruberova hors concours, likewise Olesaya Golovneva who sang in RIGOLETTO while her alter ego acted.

My favourite staging of an opera:

Basel Theatre/Staatsoper DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER
Anhaltisches Theater, Dessau: ESCLARMONDE
Deutsche Oper/Tischlerei: LES CONTES D’HOFFMAN

My favourite musical theatre performance:

Veit Schäfermeier in TANZ DER VAMPIRE
Annemieke van Dam in ELISABETH
Katie Bolding in TOI C’EST MOI
Lisa-Marie Joch in EINGEFÄDELT

My favourite Concert:

Radialsystem: Deutsches Rundfunkchor: Brahms THE HUMAN REQUIEM
Spiegelsaal: TRIO DAN (piano, violin, flute)
Piano Salon Christophoroi:  Bele Kumberger and Lena Haselmann (vocal duets)
Philharmonie: Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Petr Migunov  Shostakovitch 14th

Kurt’s Lemon for my Worst Experience of the year

Berliner Ensemble PETER PAN
Konzerthaus: Slaughtered Strauss by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie

Hold your breaths, the winners will be announced when I've had time to discuss a little further with myself, and see if my right hand votes the same as my left .. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

My favourite opera performance of the year. Fullstop.

I didn’t want to go out tonight. Two late concerts in two evenings ... but my friend Frank had fixed me a ticket ... my favourite barber and pedicurist sparked me up with a do-over  ... and I went.

Thank goodness.

I don’t know how many operas and operettes I’ve seen this season, but the Tischlerei version of Les Contes d’Hoffman will definitely be nominated for a 2013 Kurt  award.

I’ve never much liked this attempt of Offenbach et al to be ‘grand’. I saw it at Covent Garden in the way back, when I didn’t know P Domingo and A Baltsa were going to be famous, and found the whole thing rather dull.

Well, it wasn’t dull tonight!

Normally, I am a staunch supporter of ‘do it as she was writ’. I hate the word ‘bearbeitet’. Not tonight. I enjoyed this slimmed down, unpretending version of Hoffman way better than the gloomy, boring version I have always known. And that’s what its about, isn’t it?  Grabbing the public and making us cheer (we did).

The bearbeitung involved cutting off all the 19th century fat. Reducing the story to its essentials, and the orchestra to four (much better), flinging out the large stage spectacle (hurrah!), and replacing them all with wit, fun and imagination. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed that anyone in this day and age could and would do that. But they did.

I don’t know who was responsible for what: but Dorothea Hartmann and Anne Oppermann are credited with dramaturgie, Anne Champert with the musical makeover and extra bits, and Jakop Ahlborn (of whom we will surely hear much, much more) with the direction. How fabulous to find a modern, young (?) opera director who doesn’t depend on stupid ‘concepts’ and tricks to get himself noticed. I loved almost (couple of notes, Jakop!) everything he did. It was fun, and it was relevant, not just a pasted on bit of nonsense.

I mustn’t rattle on. It’s nearly midnight again. But I’m bubbling over with this one ..

You can be the cleverest director around, but if you haven’t got the performers to carry your ideas out…
Tonight’s young cast … beautifully reduced to three principals (with the ghastly Niklaus turned into a proto-Mephisto), a superb ensemble of boyos, and two splendid extra ladies ... was top to bottom pure gold. They know I think that, because I sat in the front row, and waved my cheering walking stick at them madly.

I’d like to quote all their names, but my cripply hand would die: so I’ll stick to the three stars. And they were stars.

I like having the three ladies played by one actress. Whoops, I said actress. Well, tonight that’s what we had. A quadruple threat. Got to be American, I thought. Wrong! Alexandra Hutton is yayyyy! Australian. And what a talent! She sang Olympia to perfection (much better than Luciana Serra) and slayed me with her sensitivity as Giulietta … she danced … and, oh boy, she acted. I know it’s easier to shine as an actress in a small auditorium, but it’s also easier to fail. Miss Hutton was superb. I don’t know where she will fit in to the operatic world, but she will fit somewhere. Quadruple threat: actress, singer. dancer and … potential star.

Her two male colleagues were by no means outshone. Paul Kaufmann (Hoffman) and Seth Carico (the remake of Niklaus) were both absolutely first class.  But … here’s the nitty gritty ... they were excellently cast. The fall guy and the devil. Faust and Mephistopheles. And they sang their music to perfection. Tenor and bass-baritone. Casting director, take a bow.

I can’t stop without a word for the great bunch of  guys, Hoffmann’s drinking buddies, who launched the show – in a splendidly imaginative opening 15 minutes – with such vigour, or for the two girls, Our Heroine’s alter egos … I still don’t know when they switched the doll for girl one .. brilliantly done!

And now I will stop. And go to my bed with memories of a truly grand evening in the theatre…

Nice, when it happens, like that, unexpectedly ..

Bigger isn’t Better … or, a visit to a Ballhaus

Well, my concert-going disappointment didn’t last long. Within twenty-four hours of my tangle with the Slaughtered Strauss at the Konzerthaus, I was back on top of the musical world with a very different type of concert at a very different type of venue.

 Clärchen’s Ballhaus is a wonderful time-warped dance-house, within walking distance of my flat. It made me think of the Blackpool Tower’s ballroom, though alas, in this day and age, the dancers shuffle and glide to recorded music. And like Blackpool, it has extras.

 One extra is a restaurant serving splendid blutwurst with beetroot and cabbage, after having devoured which we proceeded to the main feature of our evening: the concert in the Spiegelsaal. Yes, the hall of mirrors. What a great place for a concert! A deliciously characterful room looking as if it dated from the C18th, decorated with big old mirrors, holding chairs for about 150 and equipped with a fine grand piano and a nice little bar…

The audience lolled with their glasses of wine, and listened to Bach, Kuhlau, Prokofiev and, good heavens, Eugene Goossens jr beautifully delivered by a piano-violin-flute trio. The trio is normally made up of the three young Dan brothers, from Roumania, but tonight the pianistic brother was ‘off’ and we had a remarkably adept deputy (Naaman Wagner).

What can I say? The three players played really splendidly, separately and together, producing lovely warm tones from their instruments (the flute and fiddle never squeaked and shrieked, they sang, mezzo-soprano) and their programme was really well arranged: beginning with the oldest piece and finishing with Goossens and a grand morceau written by Aaron, the flute brother.

The lively, tuneful Kuhlau piece was a revelation – I played Kuhlau half a century and more ago, and haven’t heard him mentioned since! – I didn’t realize that Goossens the third had written such pretty, filmic stuff and the home-made piece was my treat for the evening. Lovely! The Prokofiev was written for flute or violin, so Georg, the violin brother played two movements and Aaron the flute the other two, giving an intelligent variation to the entertainment.

Because that’s what it was. Pure and heartwarming entertainment. As music should be. A thoroughly grand evening out, in a grand place with grand music …

 One complaint. The Spiegelsaal only operates in the ‘season’. This was the first concert of this season. So I – who leave for the other hemisphere when October arrives -- am not going to be able to visit as often as I would like. Except for the blutwurst!

But anyone who reads this, and is in Berlin in the coming months: put ‘dinner and concert at Clärchen’s’ on your Must list.  Of course, you can dance too, if you like…

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Slaughtered Strauss

Tonight, to Berlin’s lovely Konzerthaus, for the last of our chosen concerts of the season. Only, it won’t be the last … because I’m not going out on the least lovely concert of my season.

On paper, it looked great. A youth orchestra? Always love them. Conductor: David Afkham? I know I like him, from the MCO concerts. Programme: a new work (hurrah!), the Strauss four last songs (yes, yes, yes) and a bit of Bartok. Why not?

But between paper and the event, it went floppy.

We arrived at the hall – which we couldn’t get into last time – to find it amazingly more than half empty. Why? And yet, booking on line, we couldn’t get our favourite pair of seats. They were occupied by a parade of different people during the night. And … who were this strange, sparse audience. Mums and dads (they clapped between the songs and the Bartok movements)? For the Four Last Songs?

We started with the commissioned work which was called “strane costellazione” (e e cummings, please  note). I’m not sure why in Italian. Maybe composer Beat Furrer (Austria) has Italian connections. It was what I’d call a harmless piece. In fact, once I’d decided that it was depicting ripples and little waves trickling over the pebbles on a Riviera beach, I got on with it all right. But the little waves died away, and left me forgetting them.

Then came the Strauss. We all grew up with the Schwarzkopf record. It was the great love of my young days. The music and the singer. And it still is. This was to be the first time I had heard it live. And with a singer who professed to have studied with Schwarzkopf.

I can’t express my disappointment. The conductor worked his stockings off, the orchestra played the music loyally, and the singer…

Who hired Christiane Oelze, out of all the glorious (young?)  Strauss soprani that the world possesses, to sing this music, and why? I have written down ‘accurate, uninspired, elderly’. But it was worse than that. Her opening phases (and all the lower register) were inaudible over the orchestra, others were cut to bits by faulty breathing, although at least she stayed in tune. The quality of the voice was pale English-plummy-covered, fit for a small room but not for a small Konzerthaus. And you could see the effortful high passages coming. When I wanted a soar and a shiver … well, enough said. There was no excitement, no passion, no soaring, just colourless, distant almost-accuracy  … in this great music!

Mind you, it doesn’t help when in the middle of doing what should be a big sing, the lady bends over to turn a page! Glory is reduced to utter Prose. Which it was.

If I could remember the flood of hurt words that I poured out in the interval, I’d repeat them. But it’s nearly midnight and all I remember is my huge disappointment. And the weird grey crochet bodice the lady wore.

I felt that the second half surely would get better. Paul had heard the Bartok ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ before, and enjoyed it.

I didn’t. I found it characterless and shapeless, and the two children in front of me (who’d hated the soprano) agreed with me. Everybody played with a will, there were lots more oddities (we’d had piano plunking already), the ‘Junge Deutsche Philharmonie’, with its sawing row of oriental lady fiddlers, seemed to have been infiltrated by an elderly balding bass player … and it all sounded like musical wallpaper. Sorry, Mr Bartok. But maybe not wholly your fault.

So I came out of this evening with a feeling that maybe Herr Furrer’s piece was the least unsatisfactory item … and a mission to ask my musical friends: just who hires the singers for these concerts.

Now I’m going to you tube to listen to Schwarzkopf sing that that third song, before I go to bed ..


MEARS, Annette [Mary] (b Holborn 11 June 1812; d Lewisham/Nunhead November 1850)

One of the reasons I started on this mammoth enterprise was that I was tired of reading theatrical and musical history where the names were just that: names.  And trying to find out who and what was behind those names – above all the lesser ones – has led me into some right muddles.

Mears. Not such a very common name. Annette? Sounds like a stage name. But I’m used to that. Six years, between 1842 and 1849, prima donna of a London theatre. Fine singer and comic actress. Why can’t I find anything about her?

Well, guess just how many Mearses there were floating around at that time.

Only one other Annette though, and it isn’t our one, because she was transported to the colonies, for shooting a soldier in Hyde Park, while our Annette was still singing in London.

Another Miss Mears we can eliminate is Miss Mears of Bradford, soprano. She sued a local dignitary for breach of promise, won 1,000 pounds, and limited herself thereafter to singing Messiahs in York and Bradford.

Then there was Mary or Maria or Martha Mears, soprano, who wed then operatic comprimario Francesco Chierici (d 1868), just as Annette left the Grecian, and for some years played little parts in Italian opera, mostly on tour but also at Drury Lane, before remarrying one Thomas Porritt. Surely that’s not she?

More seriously, there was a singing-acting Mr Mears of Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres, who played and even created numerous parts in operatic productions. He was at one stage solo tenor at Vauxhall, but he seems to have been mostly a Very Useful Person around the patent theatres.  At one stage he shared the platform at Vauxhall (1836) with a ‘Miss Mears’. Our one?

And then, most seriously, there was a Miss Mears who played at the Brighton Theatre in 1836-7. She sang a lot, and played Ophelia to the Hamlet of the visiting Charles Kean. She went from Brighton to the City of London Theatre (‘a sweet though somewhat powerless singing voice’). So I presume that she’s the Miss Mears at the Colosseum in 1837, playing Wilhelmina to the Tom Tug of Braham, and subsequently in his company at the St James’s. Or is she? ‘Miss Mears’ is at Bristol in 1840, as Lucy Lockitt and Lydia Languish .. 

Then we come to ‘Annette’. The first time I can be totally sure it is she is in March 1843 when ‘Miss A Mears’ turns up at Mr Beuler’s concert at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in East End company. Then, a month later, she opens as leading lady, alongside Frazer, Horncastle, Baldwin  and Bedford, at the Grecian Saloon, appearing in opera, drama and comedy.

In the next six years she played major roles of every type, culling admiring notices for pieces including Lucia di Lammermoor, La Fille du régiment, Fra Diavolo, The Mountain Sylph, L’Elisir d’amore, La Gazza ladra, Gustavus III and Don Pasquale and including, she said, 50 performances of The Crown Diamonds and over 100 of La Sonnambula.. As well as the more ambitious and esoteric pieces which that admirable establishment mounted. On the odd occasion she seems to have sung, too, at the Adelphi (Diadeste). She took a Farewell from John Rouse’s theatre in 1848, but returned almost immediately, and it was late 1849 before her name appears for the last time on a Grecian bill.

That was her career. Yes, I’m fairly sure it was. For although the odd Miss Mears pops up, here and there, thereafter, I have found an entry in the death registers for Lewisham in 1850. And this time it is quite clear. Annette Mears. I imagine it’s she. Only a death certificate would tell us more.

But I’d like to know whence she came, and who she was … I’ll bet no-one who has read or written her name in the past 150 years knows.

Chapter Two. Seven years later. In 2013, I put this little article on my blog, because I had found a nice picture of Annette. About 100 people read it, but nobody was game to have a go at cracking my mystery.

Today, I found another illustration, on line, so I hied me back to paste it into the article and … well, one thing led to another .. and guess what? I found her!  I won’t go into the contorted details of my discovery-process, but it started when I discovered a bit of double-ledger book-keeping. Yes, ‘Annette Mears’ died Lewisham district fourth quarter of 1850. And funnily enough, so did an Annette Mary Angell. And, hoho, an Annette Mary Mears married Phillip Beck Angell in 1832, had a little Annette Emma 'of Manor Place', who died aged two, in 1835, separated, he remarried (?!) …

Annette Mary Mears was born in 1812, the first child of Charles Mears and his wife Emma née Turmeau. And Charles Mears … yes, it’s our Mr Mears of Covent Garden. How do I know? Because he and Emma had a swift five children, and then, in December 1822 Emma died, aged 28. And Charles cried for help … A big benefit was held for him at the Theatre Royal …

And Annette? I reckon she is both the Miss Mears who appears on the scene, after her baby’s death and the break-up with her husband, and also the Annette of the Grecian. Mr and Miss Mears at Vauxhall … yes!

Puzzle solved.