The week in classical: A Feast in the Time of Plague; Fidelio; Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker – review

Grange Park Opera, Surrey; Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire; Wigmore Hall, London
Grange Park Opera serves up a delicious cast for the world premiere of Alex Woolf and David Pountney’s timely new opera, commissioned and written in lockdown

“One thing you can say about the arts,” begins a truism uttered on an almost daily basis during this pandemic, mostly by those not trying to do “arts” themselves, is that they flourish in the face of adversity. This kind of tired thinking is dangerous. It’s an excuse to ignore the growing crisis for those artists, especially musicians, who cannot work in isolation, who need an audience, a place to perform. If there is work, most have to cover their own living and travel expenses. Ingenuity wears thin when your savings are spent and the outlook is bleak. The government has fallen silent. Creativity certainly hasn’t been the byword at our biggest performing venues. Whatever their promises for later in the season, they remain all but inactive, some under threat of permanent closure – even the Royal Albert Hall.

For this reason, the events under review here, presented by smaller, more flexible organisations, are vital and should never be taken for granted. Last weekend, Grange Park Opera staged the world premiere of an opera commissioned and written in lockdown: a feat that will enter the annals of this pandemic. The enterprise gave paid work to 20 people: a dozen singers, a conductor (Toby Purser) and a small stage crew. With music by Alex Woolf to a libretto by David Pountney, A Feast in the Time of Plague is based on one of Pushkin’s “little tragedies”. Twelve archetypes – from cook to policeman to dewy newlyweds – gather for a last supper, each offering their own thoughts on risk, life and death. “I went where it was forbidden and lay down with the damned and drank with the gasping and smoked with the terminal and survived,” sings Antoine, the biker playboy, biked (on his own vehicle) and played by Simon Keenlyside, in magnificent voice and done away with far too soon.

The cast consisted of an array of UK opera favourites: Susan Bullock’s cabaret-queen clairvoyant, Janis Kelly’s gnomic Scottish grandmother, Anne-Marie Owens’s food-adoring cook and Peter Hoare’s priestly butler, together with Jeff Lloyd Roberts as a creepy, voyeuristic “informer”, Will Dazeley as a radical bohemian, Claire Booth as host of the feast and Clive Bayley deliciously nasty as Death. A trio of young stars – Soraya Mafi, Sarah Minns, Harry Thatcher – excelled. All 12 met the challenge of establishing their short-lived characters, on minimal rehearsal, via Woolf’s fluently connected set pieces, stylistically echoing Sondheim, French song and plenty besides.

This 25-year-old composer, who played the piano from the side of the stage (there was no orchestra), has time yet to establish his own voice. His musicality and feel for vocal writing, often witty, is always evident. Can this opera have a future? Despite being presented as a response to the moment, there’s nothing occasional about its subject matter. Sickness, like war or famine, is part of the human condition. Enriched by orchestration, with some shortening and tightening, and further reflection not available for a piece written in a matter of weeks, it could grow in stature. Equally, enjoy it as it is: a coup, achieved in an instant with flair, hard work and brilliant team spirit.

Garsington Opera turned to one of the operas intended for its 2020 season, Beethoven’s Fidelio, for a short season of concert performances. Douglas Boyd conducted a reduced orchestra – 13 members of the Philharmonia, playing an arrangement by Francis Griffin – with a mainly abstract film (by Peter Mumford, originally seen in Paris) as a backdrop. The sterling cast stood out in front, led by Katherine Broderick powerful and impassioned as Leonore and Toby Spence – the only one conspicuously acting – as Florestan. Both were stretched to their limits by Beethoven’s vocal demands, but their performances were robust and convincing. Without the usual spoken dialogue, this condensed version could not convey the resonance of the original, yet proved revelatory.

Katherine Broderick (Leonore) and Toby Spence (Florestan) in Fidelio at Garsington Opera.
Katherine Broderick (Leonore) and Toby Spence (Florestan) in Fidelio at Garsington Opera. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

With only a string quintet, mostly single woodwind and brass, and timpani, the orchestra sounded lithe, details not usually heard now audible, players able to respond to Boyd’s rapid tempi. For all its sparseness (and a tiny, heroic chorus of three, joining with a bigger, prerecorded one on Zoom), this Fidelio punched home its message.

Quick to respond to Covid-19 with live concerts back in June, Wigmore Hall has launched its autumn season with a full programme, a limited audience and available-to-all streaming. One concert last week, by the Heath Quartet, couldn’t be aired live on Radio 3 because the leader’s car broke down and he arrived too late. Wigmore Hall’s director, John Gilhooly, told the Evening Standard: “String quartets don’t earn much. These musicians have been out of work for six months. This brought the point home very clearly.”

The cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Markus Becker gave a recital of Shostakovich, Schumann and Beethoven rich in drama and intensity. Schumann’s short Adagio and Allegro is as poetic, joyful and explosive as anything this troubled composer wrote. Gerhardt and Becker joined their instruments as one, without fuss or show: a perfect, noble match.

• Watch A Feast in the Time of Plague on Grange Park Opera’s website from 24 September

• Listen to Fidelio from Garsington Opera on Radio 3, 6.30pm on 26 September, then on BBC Sounds

Watch Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker’s Wigmore Hall recital


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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