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Il prigioniero/Philharmonia; Wagner's Dream/BBCSO; Sarah-Jane Brandon/Classical Opera Company- review

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A week of opera:

The Philharmonia presented an interesting programme of Beethoven followed by Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero at the Royal Festival Hall. One made various observations firstly Maestro Salonen's floppy barnet is wonderful and secondly that, as a conductor, he is a shaper - visually wonderful, not that it counts for much. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 had a lack of substance; it was weak and full of reluctance, however, Il prigioniero was the opposite: The music and libretto was written by Dallapiccola between 1944 and 1949; the opera, consisting of a prologue and one act, is based on the short story La torture par l'espérance by the French writer Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.

I'd never heard this work before and from the moment soprano Paoletta Marrocu sang as a Mother crying out in desperation for her child I began to be deeply moved. Further to this Lauri Vasar's Prisoner, longing for hope and indeed tortured by it, was an immensely demanding role performed with loss, anger and heart-breaking drama. Unfortunately the orchestra and singers didn't balance accordingly, so some of the singers became inaudible through certain moments. The brilliant Philharmonia Voices became a god-fearing chorus who gave full-mouthed and thunderous performance. The opera, though contemporary, followed a melody and I felt the drama through the music, something I think is often forgotten in contemporary opera. I think I may have made a personal musical discovery tonight.

Richard Wagner is, of course, one of the most prolific operatic composers but Jonathan Harvey, here, made him the protagonist for UK premiere of his third opera Wagner's Dream at the Barbican Hall. I liked it's presentation: the stage was split in three levels, one for the orchestra, one for the dream and one for reality. Claire Booth sang Prakiti, essentially a girl in love, with a more classical approach; her rounded sound, tight vibrato and even voice made for wonderful listening. Her love, Ananda was sang by tenor Andrew Staples whose clean toned voice matched Ananda's confused character. Hilary Summers gave an ever-polished performance as Prakiti's mother.

Harvey's writing for the voice, in this piece, was tremendous; I especially found the 'pit chorus' of four singers a treat - they set the tone for each situation as well as providing mystifying spoken passages to ensure the opera's dreamy sense. Though it wasn't all dreamy, I found that the instrumental music dragged on where, I suppose, it wasn't necessary - I felt the orchestration to be cacophonous and grating though, at times, Harvey's composition did reflect drama up-stage - I wasn't compelled by ear nevertheless the score was performed to its greatest extents by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and very coherently and intelligibly conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

I am still warming to contemporary classical music and I feel as thought I'm taking baby steps - I'll get there eventually.

I decided that it was probably best if I took a few steps back and left contemporary opera behind for a celebration of Mozart at Wigmore Hall with the Classical Opera Company and Sarah-Jane Brandon. And what a brilliant decision that turned out to be - what a voice! Brandon set these arias ablaze with her shimmering, golden and ultimately dazzling voice. Singing 'Dove sono I bei momenti' from Le nozze di Figaro, Brandon played the doubting Countess rather well with a slightly reluctant tone; she opened the aria simply grooming the phrases, she was gentile, regretful and confused but resplendent in voice. Brandon's last aria 'Bella mia fiamma' was just gorgeous and commanded much applause from the ever-wanting Wigmore punters.
One listens to a lot of Mozart and I've come to the conclusion that just when you think it's about to end, it begins again.

Alongside Brandon's stunning performance, the Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company played two symphonic works, one by Kozeluh and other by Mozart both in G minor. I report that I never want to hear a baroque oboe quite like that ever again; I felt like I was pelted with the raucous, and if I may use the word again, cacophonous sound of the oboe that ruined plenty of the performances on this occasion. Various intonation problems stifled the opening movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 though Ian Page's mirrored conducting was enough to keep the ensemble together - A seemingly unfortunately end to an actually terrific vocal display from Sarah-Jane Brandon.

Sarah-Jane Brandon will join Edward Gardner at the Symphony in Birmingham on the 19th of February. The Barbican continues their Present Voices series with the European Premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Ernest in April.