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OPERA Out of the box


formance ever was Garden Opera’s let’s-do-the-show-right-here affair in Regent’s Park ages ago with piano quintet and a Figaro of limited vocal resources. But sometimes you want to hear this score, a wonder of wit, irony and enjoyment, played by the best. Covent Garden’s old show – blissful last year with Antonio Pappano conducting and a dream cast – looked like a good place to try it. But the production, by house favourites Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, is hobbled by prob- lems and Rory Macdonald, though he conducts elegantly, can’t find the magic to set an estimable cast on fire, or keep his masterful orchestra from nodding off. The directors have taken the opera back to


its commedia dell’arte roots (usually a mistake) and set it in a toy box in Paul Smith stripes where the doll-like characters pop up through the floor and doors and windows appear and disappear on command. The characters are puppets, but we never find out who is the

MUSIC Never second fiddle

Ig Henneman Collected WIG 18

always respond well to tinkering with the design. It is traditionally despised. Sir Thomas Beecham called it the hermaphrodite of the orchestra. Wagner was crueller, claiming that the viola was only played by infirm violinists, or broken-winded reed players who’d once had a few string lessons. That said, the viola has been the instrument of choice for an impressive number of major composers: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorák, Hindemith, Britten – they can’t all have been physically inept. The late twentieth century saw a revival of interest in the viola as a solo instrument, and as an equal voice with the violin and cellos in string ensembles. Shostakovich’s last work (and one of his great masterpieces) was a viola sonata. Many of the great violinists of the century, Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh most obviously, were confident viola “doublers”. At the same time, a number of specialists emerged, like Kim Kashkashian and Rebecca Clarke, whose competence encouraged com- posers to write for the instrument in turn. For Dutch violist, composer and improviser

T 26 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011

echnically, the viola is a failure. It produces too little sound for its size, and doesn’t

ossini’s comedy is an infinitely forgiving and flexible creature: my favourite per-

puppet-master – God, the audience, money, music? – nor whether they actually come to life: certainly a matter raised by Rossini, who grants them flashes of self-awareness, full of the pathos of trapped characters suddenly realising their real predicament. This is a question of personnel: what made it so good last time round were the singing and acting talents of Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez and Alessandro Corbelli; Aleksandra Kurzak, John Osborn and Bruno Praticò can’t match them for that or for charm, and the characters remain caricatures and the show earthbound. There is still plenty to enjoy. Kurzak fizzes with energy and tosses off her amazing, impro- vised coloratura like a Catherine wheel. Osborn has a nice elegant easy tone and a

wonderful feathery way with the fast stuff. Ildar Abdrazakov as Basilio stalks about like an absurdist Ivan the Terrible and provides a grotesque that actually works. The inspira- tion of Act 2 finally fires up the cast, and the show careers along to its conclusion, a happy ending naughtily wrought by various sorts of venality and base motives. Meanwhile, at the King’s Head in Islington,

Il Barbiere di Siviglia: back to its commedia dell’arte roots

Ig Henneman, there was never any question of the viola belonging in the second rank. “For me, it occupies the ideal place in the orchestra. You are in the middle of the register, and for me that is the ideal place to express myself. It allowed me to develop my own language on the instrument. I don’t believe all those insulting clichés about it, and I realised this when I recently played an improvised trio with two electric guitarists, Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor of the Ex. Without any effort, I could blend, or provide a counter-voice, fool around with their sounds. It was fun …” Henneman is all the more confidently able to enjoy her music making because, at 65, she is the subject of a major retrospective CD box, a beautifully documented survey of her work with partner/saxophonist Ab Baars, with her own Tentet, and with the all-female trio Queen Mab, who produce some of the most delicious sounds you’ll ever hear. Did listening back to several decades’ worth of music make her rethink her procedures? “It made me realise I was better than I thought I was! And that the ideas that kept me busy from the begin- ning had developed in a very organic way towards what I am doing now.” The beginning was conventional enough. Henneman was born in Haarlem in the very last days of 1945, in a country whose musical culture seemed to have been razed by the war, symbolised by the almost complete destruction of Willem Pijper’s works in the Rotterdam firestorm. “I was born right in the middle of a family of seven, and raised a Catholic. My parents were religious, but modern. It had an impact on me:

OperaUpClose is presenting four operas in rep through February. This is the company that made a splash with their Bohème in a Kilburn pub, and have now moved to bour- geois Upper Street. Their Cinderella – a sparky rendition of Rossini’s Cenerentola – is well worth catching. When the opera erupts out of the tiny theatre at the back of the pub into the bar itself for the ball scene, a small miracle happens: a rowdy London pub is gradually hushed, then seduced, delighted and finally roars its approval of opera, of all things – largely thanks to Naomi Kilby and Laura Woods as the ghastly sisters, shouldering their way through the crowd, being intensely vulgar and entirely irresistible, and filling the air with flying lingerie. The piano might be ropy, the set non-existent, some of the singing hit- and-miss, but Rowan Hellier’s simmering Cinders, Tony Britten’s sharp translation and a performance that conveys the absolute joy of this music mean there is rather more actual Rossini on offer here than at Covent Garden. Robert Thicknesse

the ceremony, organ music, sitting still, the church as a building, Gregorian chant, being good to others. I still profit from the positive things and I tend to ignore the bad things.” Henneman studied both violin and viola. When she began orchestral work, she found herself, as women often do, among the viola desks. Her horizons broadened quickly, though, and she founded the rock group FC Gerania. “I wanted to get away from sheet music, and so for seven years I played rock as a keyboard and viola player. I never thought much about the difference between composed and improvised music. The second is maybe like making a drawing, the first like an oil painting.” In truth, what Henneman brought to the improvised music scene in the Netherlands, one of the most important in Europe, and benefiting from the country’s hub position, was a painterly richness of tex- ture. In among the skronk and clatter of free playing, she always sounded different, but by no means soft-edged. One of the miracles of Queen Mab, her trio with Canadian clarinettist Lori Freedman and pianist Marilyn Lerner, is how beautiful they make tough music sound. That pretty much sums up Henneman’s approach. There’s nothing hermaphrodite about her playing. It has a female gentleness and openness to others, but it stands up strongly in the most rugged of company. There are no infirmities in her technique but what has developed is a musical voice that goes beyond technique, to a place where the viola seems to sing in its own unique voice. Brian Morton

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