On the benefits of going the other way

As you may have gathered from several recent posts, I have re-evaluated my opinion of recorded opera and come to enjoy it but still find live performances to be preferable.

On the whole, I’m sticking to my guns and I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced otherwise (with the caveat that I’d probably find a recorded version of an excellent performance preferable to a live version of a bad one).  However, lest you think that I think that opera on DVD is inferior to the live version in every respect, I should mention that I’ve recently discovered one way in which it is actually better.  Read on to discover why.

As well as opera, I’ve recently been exploring more of the works of George Frideric Handel (to use the spelling of his name that he adopted on settling to live in the UK, also used by the English version of Wikipedia – unsurprisingly, the German version uses the original, Geman spelling of his name: Georg Friedrich Händel).  Previously I’d only really been particularly familiar with a few of his better-known pieces such as the Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Messiah.  I used to have a tape of one of his sets of concerti grossi (the opus 6 ones, I think) too, but that wore out years ago.

Opera was very much one of Handel’s bags and it is probably not surprising that my explorations of opera and of Handel’s music should soon converge.  Having listened to a number of isolated arias from several of his many operas, I recently managed to get hold of a DVD copy of Rodelinda (HWV 19), which is widely considered to be one of his best.

Baroque opera is something of a niche market compared to more mainstream, later opera and, consequently there are usually few, if any, available recordings of any given work and the ones that exist tend to be relatively expensive.  I was, therefore, pleased to get a fairly cheap (but very good condition) second-hand copy of an acclaimed performance of Rodelinda by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1998, featuring Anna Caterina Antonacci (whom I recently watched (on DVD) in a completely different role as the star of a Covent Garden production of Carmen), Andreas Scholl (one of the world’s leading countertenors) and a bunch of other very competent performers none of whom I’d heard of.

Incidentally, I vaguely recall that I was once supposed to be going on a school trip to Glyndebourne but it got cancelled.  It could have been in 1993, the year the festival was cancelled while their theatre was being rebuilt, although I think it was earlier than that and the cancellation was presumably on the part of my school rather than the festival itself.

Returning to Rodelinda, this particular performance was interesting because, although they seemed to go for a fairly HIP (as in Historically Informed Performance, aka Authentic Performance etc.) version musically (complete with a theorbo and a couple of recorders in the orchestra pit), the staging was definitely post-baroque.  Visually it was particularly interesting because throughout most of the story the sets and costumes were all rather monochrome but at the very end they brought in some quite strong colour.  This was very much in keeping with the plot (and I won’t say any more for fear of giving the game away if you should have any desire to check out Rodelinda for yourself and want to preserve the surprise; the Wikipedia page has a good synopsis you can read otherwise) and presumably was done that way on purpose.

Handel was very much a composer in the opera seria (literally “serious opera”, in contrast to opera buffa or “comic opera”, although the terms can be slightly misleading) genre, which is characterised by the da capo aria.  This is an aria (or song, in non-opera-speak), usually for a solo performer, that starts with one section, moves on to a contrasting second section and then goes back and repeats the first section.  The end result can be quite long and somewhat repetitive, although at their best (such as in Rodelinda) they can contain some truly delicious music.  In fact baroque opera is built almost exclusively around alternating passages of recitative (basically, sung dialogue, which serves to move the plot forward – generally quite rapidly – and can involve several characters) alternating with solo da capo arias (giving individual performers a chance to shine while pausing to explore their character’s emotional response to the situation), with few if any ensemble or chorus pieces (in Rodelinda there is one exquisite duet at the end of the second act (of three) and a quartet at the very end of the how).

In a way this is a shame, as I particularly involve the vocal interplay in ensemble pieces (my single favourite bit of Carmen, for example is not one of the famous arias but a lovely quartet in the middle of the second act).  Still, the emphasis on solo items does help to give baroque opera a unique character (along, of course, with the distinctive melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structures, as well as orchestration, of baroque music, etc.) and I think it’s best to enjoy each operatic genre on its own terms rather than in comparison to different genres.

One of the arias towards the end of Rodelinda involves one of the main characters falling asleep in a garden.  As you might expect, the music at this point is very gentle and soporific.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s likely to happen if you’re watching it in a comfortable chair in a darkened room late in the evening after about 3 hours of sitting down enjoying the show…

Which brings me at last to the benefit of opera on DVD as opposed to a live performance: When you fall asleep part-way through, you don’t have to miss large chunks of the action but can go back and revisit them at your leisure.  Plus, you don’t have to worry about winding up other members of the audience or disturbing the cast with your snoring. 🙂


Twice in one month

In general, I don’t get out to nearly as many live gigs as I’d like (not counting ones I’m playing in myself – on that front, things are relatively quiet at the moment but I’m quite enjoying the semi-break from the hectic gigging schedule of the last few years).

However, I’ve now been to two concerts in the space of a fortnight and enjoyed them both immensely.

The first was the baroque opera Egisto that I’ve already written about.  The other was a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah given by Cantorion Menai at Bangor Cathedral this evening (actually, technically it was yesterday evening as I notice it’s just past midnight).

I was vaguely aware of the existence of this work, an oratorio on the biblical story of Elijah (as the name suggests), but had not (as far as I’m aware) heard any of it when a friend gave me a ticket a few weeks ago for tonight’s performance.  Since then, I got hold of a double CD of songs by Kathleen Ferrier, which happened to include a couple of arias from Elijah.  So, I had heard a bit of it before this evening, but not very much.

This performance was in English.  Although Mendelssohn apparently started working on the oratorio in his native German, as you might expect, he apparently received a commission from the Birmingham Festival for an oratorio so he had it translated by a chap called William Bartholomew and it was the English version that premiered first (which is possibly an oxymoron, depending on whether or not you consider the English Elijah and the German Elias to be one work or two – this parenthetical thought is, aside from anything else, probably fairly strong proof that I need to stop blogging and go to bed).

Having now made the acquaintance of Elijah I hope to have much more exposure to this work in the future and to get to know it rather better.

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the orchestra for which Elijah is scored includes an ophicleide (a wonderful – although apparently very difficult to play – instrument that I once got an opportunity to see in a concert/lecture, along with a bunch of serpents).  Sadly they didn’t have one in tonight’s line-up, although there was a treble soloist (one of the Bangor cathedral choristers, judging by his costume) in addition to the four soloists mentioned by Wikipedia.  I haven’t yet had a chance to check out the score to see how much either ophicleides or juvenile singers feature.




Rice is nice…

My latest experiment in noodlesprucing, a couple of days ago, resulted in a very tasty rice dish with a Hungarian twist.

I wanted to knock up a quick meal of rice and not have to worry about preparing external sauces or stuff like that, as I had limited time and several other things that needed to be done.  It occurred to me that, just as rice can be tweaked with the addition of a bit of turmeric (or saffron if your budget will stretch to it) – mostly for colour effect – other seasonings could probably be added at the start of cooking to infuse both colour and flavour.

Digging not too far into my spice collection I came across a packet of Vegeta that Eszter, my Hungarian former housemate, gave me when she left last year.  I first came across Vegeta on my trip to Hungary half a dozen years ago.  It is a condiment that, apparently, originated in Croatia but is very popular in Hungary and (as far as I know) other parts of eastern Europe.  It consists mostly of salt, with powdered dehydrated vegetables (including carrot, onion and celery), MSG and spices (the exact mix of those not being divulged in the Wikipedia article or, as far as I can tell, on the packet – though mine is all in Hungarian and I don’t know it well enough to be sure).

Incidentally, the Vegeta packet gave me a memorable lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation in Hungarian, especially with regard to paying attention to diacritics.  When Eszter was still around I was trying to read aloud the ingredients list from the back of the packet (which, at the time, was still hers) while she was cooking one evening.  I got to the word zöldség, which I correctly identified as meaning “vegetables” – mainly from remembering that zöld means “green”.  Unfortunately I failed to pronounce the final é sufficiently long (as indicated by the accent) – something like the ‘a’ in “cake”; instead I made it rhyme with the word “egg” (The IPA for the correct pronunciation is /ˈzølt͡ʃeːɡ/ but the end of my attempt came out more like /ˈʃɛɡː/).  That wouldn’t be a problem except that the word segg in Hungarian is a vulgar word for buttocks (roughly on a level with the English word “arse”, I gather), which made my mispronunciation quite amusing for a native Hungarian speaker.  As it happens, I already knew (but had forgotten) about the dangers of saying segg (NB the letter ‘s’ in Hungarian is pronounced as “sh” (or /ʃ/ in IPA), while the “s” (/s/) sound is written as ‘sz’) as, when I visited the town of Szeged, I was warned to avoid saying it with “sh” at the beginning (and why). 

To return from my linguistic digression, I decided to try lobbing a bit of Vegeta (about a medium-sized pinch if you want to be slightly more accurate) in with the rice.  For good measure I also chucked a bit (a large pinch this time!) of paprika in there.  The end result was very tasty, even without any accompaniment. I think it would work nicely, too, if the rice were being eaten with something else.

By the way, my usual rice cooking method is one which I picked up from a Chinese cookery book (one by Kenneth Lo on the art of cooking with a wok, as I recall; I can’t remember what it was called although I think I still have it somewhere – probably on my kitchen shelf if I could be bothered going to look).  Esssentially, you measure a quantity of rice into a saucepan, add boiling water in a proportion of 3:2 (water to rice; I usually use a 1/2 cup measuring cup of rice and one each of 1/2 and 1/4 cup measures for the water when I’m making rice for one meal for myself), put a lid on the pan, stick it on the cooker at lowest heat for 10 minutes (more-or-less carefully times), then turn off the heat and leave it sitting (with the lid still on) for a further 10 minutes (although I often only give it 5 or so for this latter stage and it seems to work fine).  As long as you’re reasonably careful with the measurements the rice comes out consistently well-cooked – moist but not too wet – and it avoids having to either watch your rice like a hawk or risk either very soggy rice or a burned pan.

I’m not sure how much rice features in Hungarian cuisine (though it is mentioned on the Wikipedia page so evidently it’s not unknown there) but I’m under no illusion that this is particular preparation likely to be an authentic Hungarian dish (although I could be wrong about that).  I think it’s one I’m likely to use again, though.

Not dancing like a chicken

Earlier today I came across a reference to “Dance Like A Chicken Day”.

Before you get excited and start dancing like a chicken (although don’t let me stop you if that floats your boat), I should point out a couple of things:

Firstly, the occasion, as far as I can tell, is only celebrated in the United States (as “National Dance Like a Chicken Day” or “National Chicken Dance Day”).  Even there it doesn’t seem to have official status and there is no mention of it on the Wikipedia page about the Chicken Dance.

Secondly, it was yesterday (i.e. 14th May).  Don’t worry, though, as it’s an annual event and in any case there’s nothing preventing you from doing the Chicken Dance on any day the mood takes you!

I haven’t had time to do extensive research, but a bit of Googling turned up a few websites corroborating the existence of (National) Dance Like A Chicken Day (you can recreate the search for yourself if you are so inclined) and the aforementioned Wikipedia article has a reasonable amount of information about the Chicken Dance – it’s a specific dance, to a specific piece of music (originating in Switzerland in the 1950s under the name of die Entertanz (the Duck Dance) and probably better known in the UK as The Birdie Song as the music was released here under that name in 1981 – I remember it well from school discos in my youth!).  Apparently, and unsurprisingly, it’s topped at least one poll for “most annoying song of all time” (the only serious contender I can think of is Agadoo – another frightful song from the early 80s that I remember from school discos despite my best attempts to erase it from my memory – and I apologise if you now have either of these tunes floating round in your head).

Fortunately the name of Dance Like A Chicken Day reminded me of an album by solo bass artist Steve Lawson (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, albeit not recently), entitled Not Dancing For Chicken.  This was one of his earlier albums as I recall (from about 12 years ago) and remains one of my favourites – certainly the title is my favourite (I think it was a reference to his cat).  I’m currently floating that past my ears and hoping that this rather better music will displace the twin earworms of the Birdy Song and Agadoo (though, to be fair, if you did feel like dancing those would probably be more suitable choices).





Still the best way

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been re-evaluating my opinion of pre-recorded opera and finding that it is, after all, a good way to enjoy this art form.

Nonetheless, I remain firmly convinced that live performance is the best way to experience opera.  Therefore I was delighted to have an opportunity a couple of nights ago to see a live opera (my first in about 10 years).

This was a performance of L’Egisto (or just plain Egisto according to many sources, though it was written with the article (l’) on the promo material for this production) by Francesco Cavalli, a baroque composer I’d not previously come across.  The performance was by members of Bangor University’s music department (none of them – yet, at least – professional opera singers) and took place at Penrallt Baptist Church in Bangor (they had done several performances at the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead earlier in the week).

I was very impressed both with the standard of the performance and with the work itself.  One interesting feature was that, while the arias were all sung in the original Italian, much of the recitative was delivered in English;  in the absence of surtitles or a printed bilingual libretto this helped to keep the audience informed as to what was going on.  While I’m generally in favour of hearing works in their original language, I found this mixture to work very well and it definitely enabled me to get a better handle on the action than my rather limited knowledge of Italian would have allowed.

The opera had a fairly big cast of singers (about a dozen, I think, and there was a fair amount of doubling going on – in fact, I think at least a couple of the singers may have had as many as 3 roles).  The “orchestra”, by contrast, consisted only of a harpsichord and 3 violins (or possibly 2 violins and a viola, although they all looked the same size to me and there were no obvious sub-violin-range notes that I could hear, except from the harpsichord).

As far as I can make out, there are currently no commercially available recordings (audio or video) of the whole of L’Egisto, although there seems to have been one released a number of years ago on LP that is long out of print and a couple of arias are included on a compilation CD of arias by Cavalli (from several of his many operas) released by Naxos (which is available to listen to on Spotify – I have listened to the Egisto arias and a handful of the other ones on there).  So this trip to the opera may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear this work.

I would definitely like to hear more of Cavalli’s work (including Egisto again, if a recording ever becomes available or I get another chance to see it live) and I’ll also be keeping an eye out for any more opera performances (baroque or otherwise) taking place within easy reach of home.