Charpentier´s Medea at English National Opera and Brass Bands in Bergen

A serious musical collision here, at the start of February. Bergen National Opera starts rehearsals for Cunning Little Vixen. The Norwegian National Brass Band Federation holds its annual championships. So, tubas and harmoniums battle for supremacy in the midst of startled dancers, foxcubs and repetiteurs, while the Vixen herself, just arrived from Tel Aviv, is practising her Czech. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson looks incredulous as droves of blond Norwegian teens swirl into Grieghallen carrying large black cases. Does everyone female, aged 18, play the euphonium?

Meanwhile, in my office, mournful brassy sounds seep through the floor, and I wonder why modern brass band music sounds so angular and grumpy. Whatever happened to all that punchy, upbeat world of shiny trumpets and beaming conductors? Or, for that matter, to all those beautiful Peter Skellern love-song recordings with Grimethorpe Colliery Band that we used to mooch over in the 90s? (I remember a spiky correspondence after we played ’Where do we go from here?’ on the BBC´s classical music programme. Hard-core Beethoven fans were not amused…)

Meanwhile, Vixen rehearsals are going marvelously. It´s fascinating to watch directors Avshalom Pollak and Inbal Pinto work to blend the dance element with the singers´movement, and to see how the fabulous costumes – all fur, painted tweed, folded paper and crumpled silks – become living shapes and pictures. The cast is superb – an amazing mix of  nationalities, new talents, European stars and – of course – naughty children. But great to hear their comments: ’this is really cool!’ said one 10year-old aspiring frog to the stage manager, at last night´s rehearsal.

Friday and Saturday, though, meant a trip to London for me, general manager Morten Hansen, and communications director Sue-Janne Alsaker. We had long wanted to take BNO´s board of directors on a trip to talk strategy, to see some opera, and to spend time together discussing the critical dilemma of all culture organisations in times of political change (Norway has elections late this year) – how do we balance idealism with reality?

The dialogue was good – we are fortunate to have a board which supports wholeheartedly our vision – and now we forge ahead to meet financial targets while remaining unflinching in our pursuit of great voices and creative teams, development for young artists, kids and youth, and audience diversity. (Well, of course. But Norway, country of wealth and good living, also has mountains to climb.)….

We saw David McVicar´s new production of Charpentier´s Medea at English National Opera. Stunning performance in the title role from Sarah Connelly, and wonderful singing from Roddy Williams and Katherine Manley. If at times McVicar´s ideas swamped the delicacy of the music, this absolutely beautifully conducted by Christian Curnyn, McVicar is one of the most innately musical directors around, and his ability to hold the stage still at profound moments was both brave and impressive.

Mary Miller, February 18

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