Sir Charles Mackerras: A Celebration in Music at English National Opera [A sort-of Blog]

“This memorial concert pays tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras and his long and prolific association with ENO during his lifetime. Three of ENO’s Music Director past and present, Edward Gardner, Sir Mark Elder and Paul Daniel, will conduct ENO’s Orchestra as they play operatic arias and choruses by Handel, Mozart, Gilbert & Sullivan, Verdi, Beethoven, Britten, Puccini, Strauss and Janáček. Performing alongside ENO’s Chorus is an incredible roster of international artists, many of whom worked closely with Sir Charles.” (ENO publicity)

Sir John Tomlinson, Dame Felicity Palmer, Lesley Garrett, Susan Bickley, Diana Montague, Jonathan Summers, Neal Davies, John Graham-Hall, Yvonne Kenny, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Christine Rice, Timothy Robinson, Matthew Rose, Peter Rose, Brindley Sherratt, Kate Valentine, Allan Clayton, Sophie Bevan, Gillian Ramm, Simon Butteriss, Michael Colvin, Rena Harms & Kathryn Harries

Students from the Royal Academy of Music

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Paul Daniel
Edward Gardner
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 June, 2011
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive BardaYou can’t really review this one, but nice to have it documented. After all, I interviewed Sir Charles Mackerras at his London home and he was a thoroughly welcoming chap whose enthusiasm (for Czech music on that occasion, 2004) was undimmed. I called the article for What’s On in London (now defunct), Czech Mate. It got published, too. Sir Charles died on 14 July 2010 at the age of 84. In true conductors’ style, he carried on until the end. On 26 July 2011, in my case after a pleasant supper with Tony Faulkner (the engineer on many of Sir Charles’s recordings) and Mrs F, we (including Lady Judy) gathered at The Coliseum, English National Opera’s home. Nothing solemn – although some of the chosen music had appropriate gravitas (all of it was associated with Sir Charles) – and ENO had produced a nice souvenir programme, and included in it were fond memories by our trio of maestros for the evening. Sir Charles was pictured large on the front-of-stage curtain. When that was lifted, it was to the set of Christopher Alden’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Not of blessed memory.)

Paul Daniel was first up, for a sparkling and fleet version of the Overture to Mozart’s Figaro, quick enough for a soft-boiled egg if with some over-pronounced dynamic contrasts. A bit of Così fan tutte followed (in Italian, but this is ENO!), a sea-breeze of an aria, Mr Daniel still at the helm, with Ramm, Montague and Davies. The voices blended nicely. Some Janáček next (in English – this was a language-schizoid evening), ‘One Moment’ from Jenůfa, Susan Bickley compelling and without the swear-words that dubious librettists have saddled her with in Anna Nicole and Two Boys (a little knock at such gratuitousness and even-handedly shared between ENO and The Royal Opera). My word, I have forgotten our host for the evening, the red-socked Sean Rafferty – delete “host”, insert “raconteur” – who kept the show bubbling along with a bit of stand-up, although he surely didn’t mean that Mark Elder was a “fat knight”. Not after he’d conducted a sublime Quartet from Fidelio (German – Valentine, Harries, Robinson & Sherratt) and an equally sublime Trio from Rosenkavalier (English – Kenny, Bevan & Montague). Off to the Tower with him – Mr Rafferty, not Sir Mark. Back to Mozart and hello to Ed(ward) Gardner; an in-English Idomeneo chunk with Timothy Robinson as High Priest and some not-convincing ‘period’ touches in the Orchestra … and then an in-Italian bit of Idomeneo (Bevan, Harms, Clayton & Robinson) … in between, Mr Daniel had crept back into the pit for Handel, not the advertised excerpt (from Julius Caesar), for Catherine Wyn-Rogers was indisposed, so Christine Rice had a wobbly but well-intentioned go at ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes. Ed returned to close Part One with the ‘Te Deum’ that ends Act I of Puccini’s Tosca, the performance low-point of the evening: were the opening Stylophone-like sounds (remember Rolf Harris advertising this product in the 1970s?) meant to be bells? Curious. Anthony Michaels-Moore didn’t really catch fire as Scarpia (he’d been great the night before as Sharpless at the Royal Opera House) and the antiphonal distance between the two bass drums and the players’ lack of coordination … well, let’s draw a veil of it and be charitable – all proceeds from this Mackerras Celebration (musicians giving their services) were swelling the coffers of ENO’s Benevolent Fund. Excellent.

Sir Charles Mackerras at the 2009 BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC / Chris ChristodoulouWe each had an ice-cream during the interval – three quid a go. Ouch! Thought I spotted Alfred Brendel (he and Mackerras performed and recorded Mozart piano concertos) – but it wasn’t him. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t present though.

The concert’s second half opened with more Handel, a joyful noise from the Royal Fireworks music, Ed leading an outsize ensemble of wind-players from the Royal Academy of Music, nine horns, twelve oboes, a few serpents – very much as the composer and, indeed, Sir Charles liked to do it. All’s fine at the RAM. Valerie Masterson sent in a letter of gratitude to Sir Charles. Sir Mark then led three Gilbert & Sullivan excerpts – Sir Charles was a big fan (and Lesley Garrett won Best Dress of the Night Award) – the peach being a brilliant re-write of the copper’s number from The Pirates of Penzance; no felon or “constabulary duty’s (sic) to be done” on this occasion. Martin Fitzpatrick had done a hilarious job of creating a paean of praise to Sir Charles – “When we celebrate this eminent musician” – and made it a perfect Gilbertian fit and every bit as witty. John Tomlinson and Brindley Sherratt locked horns in dark confrontation in an Italian outing for the scene in Verdi’s Don Carlos when the Grand Inquisitor (John Tom) turns up. Elder again. Ed returned for the ‘Old Joe’ round from Peter Grimes (John Graham-Hall as the ostracised fisherman), if sounding more like an oratorio than an opera. Finally, and following Rosenkavalier, ‘Life is a burst of laughter’ (a fugue!) from Verdi’s swansong opera Falstaff – this was where Sean got his “fat knight” line in – Mark Elder had just conducted the Strauss and Paul Daniel was returning for the Verdian pay-off (Sir Mark and Ed G singing along in the Chorus) – an effervescent send-off to this memorable worth-being-at evening remembering ‘Charlie’ – friends and colleagues knew him as that – and he’d been affectionately celebrated just as ENO had promised.

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