Friday 8 July

The Alehouse Sessions - Barokksolistene

Kicking off their UK Alehouse Tour at Lichfield Garrick, international early music ensemble Barokksolistene present a selection of songs and tunes that might have been heard in English pubs in the 17th and 18th centuries. After Cromwell closed down the theatres, Norwegian violinist and frontman Bjarte Eike explains, people turned instead to their local alehouses for entertainment, and a thriving concert scene grew up around the thousands of pubs across the country. The Alehouse sessions attempts to recreate something of the raucous energy and diversity of pub culture in the Baroque era with an array of folk music and formal compositions from Britain and elsewhere in Europe – and of course, with plenty of beer.

Though essentially a baroque band, Barokksolistene bring a distinctly modern edge to their performance: with their improvisational style and double bass, you get the sense that they'd be just as at home in a cool jazz bar as in a more traditional folk pub. At one point, during a set of variations around Paul's Steeple in which the musicians serenade various audience members, there's even a breaking out into a kind of improvised operatic aria (sung in nonsense Italian).

Music from Eike's native Norway, from Denmark and Scotland, music with Spanish influences and even a tune from America makes its way onto the set list. Elegant pieces by Henry Purcell sit comfortably alonside rowdy drinking songs, sea chanteys and folk dance tunes, painting a picture of the magpie folk culture of the time. There are familiar favourites to stamp your feet to and join in with (Haul Away and Whisky oh), and lovers' laments to bring a tear to your eye. There's singing, dancing and some truly dazzling fiddle-playing, but best of all is the brilliant rapport the band members build up both amongst themselves and with the audience.

A masterful, madcap musical journey and an absolute riot of an evening.  

 

Thursday 7 July

Cosi fan tutte - Lichfield Festival Opera

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Clever staging, witty narration and an arch self-awareness make a virtue of limitations in Lichfield Festival Opera's Cosi fan tutte, performed by the little company in the city's stunning cathedral. Sung in English with only piano accompaniment from Anthony Kraus and Ian Ryan, this stripped-back production puts the musical emphasis squarely on the singers, all of whom rise to the challenge with aplomb.

Fully exploiting the opera's sly, anarchic sense of humour, this is a production that not only consistently breaks the fourth wall, but sees its singers interacting with the pianists as well. Packed full of topical gags, one-liners and anachronistic references, a new spoken narration by Joe Sheridan is wedded to Mozart's joyous music in a marriage of perfect mischievousness, placing the master manipulator Don Alfonso (Jonathan Gunthorpe) centre stage as he relates the story from his own perspective.

The set consists of just a few chairs and a table, initially used for cards and later for signing marriage certificates. The costumes are rather ridiculous, but brilliantly so, with the performers ramping up the farce and physical humour. Robert Murray and Damian Thantrey are hilarious as the cocksure soldiers Ferrando and Guglielmo, delightfully absurd in their “Albanian” disguises. Both make excellent soloists, Murray taking both Ferrando's mocking of Don Alfonso and wooing of Fiordiligi in his stride, while Thantrey sings about the fickleness of women with such conviction that it's half-tempting to boo at the end of his tirade. Kate Valentine's Fiordiligi is full of character, her wavering convincing even given the silliness of the situation, and there's a lovely camaraderie between her and Leigh Woolf's Dorabella that contrasts nicely with the competitiveness of their hotheaded lovers. But if there's one stand-out performance, it's from the sublime Anna Dennis as Despina, her every note ringing clear as a bell with apparently effortless control, and her acting full of warmth, wit and energy.

A low-key but confident and very, very funny production.

 

Tuesday 5 July

Charlie Chaplin Silent Films with Mark Kermode & Orchestra of the Swan

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Image credit: Redlock Photography

With the First World War centenary serving as the theme for this year's Lichfield Festival, critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode takes a look at the popular culture of the era with an introduction to two Charlie Chaplin films. Between 1916 and 1917, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in 12 movies for the Mutual Film Corporation, cementing his reputation as a global icon. Screened in Lichfield Cathedral with live music from Orchestra of the Swan, The Rink and The Immigrant chart his early development from physical comedian to important and influential artist.

Taking place half in a rollerskating rink and half in a restaurant, The Rink seems to prefigure the later success of works ranging from Fawlty Towers to Shall We Dance. As Kermode explains, in the early 20th century, rollerskating became a popular pasttime for young people since, like dancing before, it provided an acceptable excuse to socialise and even come into physical contact with the opposite sex, at a time when relatively rigid rules still governed such interactions. The set-up allows Chaplin to show off his incredible versatility, performing his own impressive skating sequences alongside his trademark slapstick routines. The film is basically lighthearted, yet the technical skill and confidence it demonstrates is phenomenal, all the more astonishing considering he was aged just 27 at the time.

Though still essentially a comedy featuring some of Chaplin's funniest scenes, The Immigrant marked something of a departure for him in taking on a more serious subject matter. The film begins with a boatload of refugees arriving in New York, tired and penniless, with shots not far removed from those you might expect to see on a news report today. Featuring, among other things, the title character cheekily kicking a rather overbearing immigration officer, it was this film that in large part earned Chaplin the admiration of the progressive and artistic fringes of society, as well as the suspicion of the conservative American establishment. In very different ways, then, the two films provide a window onto the First World War period, as well as prompting reflections on our own time.

To a large extent, however, it's the live soundtrack that makes this such a unique experience. Conducted by David Curtis, the deservedly acclaimed Orchestra of the Swan perform scores specially composed for the films by Carl Davis. Though just some of many written years after the films were made, the scores created by Davis are, Kermode argues, those truest to the spirit of Chaplin's work and those the man himself would likely have appreciated most, gliding as effortlessly as he does between comedy and drama. In The Rink, there's a perfect bit of percussive and vaguely exotic sounding music to accompany Chaplin's attempts to make and shake a cocktail in his job as a waiter, managing to capture the humour of the scene without resorting to slapstick clichés. The Immigrant gets a powerful, rolling opening that reflects the swaying of the boat on stormy seas. Upon the immigrants' arrival in the US, Davis employs a burst of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a kind of bittersweet satire of the American Dream, shown up for its hollowness when Chaplin's immigrant finds himself down-and-out and destitute, left to hungrily wander the city streets. The Orchestra perform brilliantly, keeping perfect time with the action without the use of any aids, despite the fact that for some of them (Curtis included), it's their first experience of playing along live to a film. It's testament to their talent that one can almost forget their presence while looking at the screen, so seamlessly does the music blend with the visuals. A delight from start to finish. 

 

Monday 4 July

Amuse-Bouche - I Fagiolini

Known for its innovative, often staged and sometimes filmed performances of Renaissance and twentieth-century music, it's perhaps no surprise that I Fagiolini present a concert full of character, wit and warmth in Lichfield's spectacular cathedral. In Amuse-Bouche, the choir bring together well-loved pieces with lesser-known gems from early- to mid-twentieth-century France, with an emphasis on the Surrealist movement.

Selections range widely from the haunting to the hunger-inducing, the exotic and sensual to the very silly: we begin with Francis Poulenc's take on Apollinaire's indolent “Hôtel” (Je ne veux pas travailler – je veux fumer), travel via settings of elegiac Éluard poems and René Chalupt's saucy L'Éventail, and finally arrive at Jean Françaix's sharp satire of Brillat-Savarin's La Physiologie du Goût, a sort of bible of food and fine dining.

Poulenc features heavily on the programme, though primarily in a more sombre mood. Among the highlights is Un soir de neige, which sets four pieces by Éluard, evoking a desperate chase through a wintery wood. In its bleakness and meditation on mortality, the set has been likened to TS Eliot's Four Quartets. “Belle et Resemblante” has a similarly brooding quality – there's a gorgeous wistfulness to the music that perfectly matches the poet's dense imagery. Where Un soir de neige is dark and wintery, however, “Belle et Resemblante” is perhaps more autumnal in feel, concerned with the gradual disappearance of beautiful things yet perceived in the fading light.

This musing on things almost forgotten features both in Poulenc's “Marie” an Apollinaire setting combining a yearning melody with the tripping steps of a half-remembered dancer, and in Darius Milhaud's Deux Poems (setting St. John Perse and Chalupt), which speak of distant, sun-soaked shores – “Éloge V” lamenting a lost childhood in the West Indies, “Le Brick” a rather racier account of les nuits lascives des tropiques.

Director Robert Hollingworth gets the mix of melancholy, magic and mischief spot on. There's a aptly French-seeming archness to the choir's expression, particularly in Françaix's hilarious Ode à la Gastronomie, which simply begs to be acted out. Written by the composer, the lyrics begin by pondering what Eve, who betrayed us all for the sake of an apple, might have done with a cooked turkey, and proceeds to compare cooking and eating to science, philosophy and religion. A delicious concoction of character studies and tongue-in-cheek prayers, of kitchen noises, dinner table chatter and clever musical parody, liberally sprinkled with in-jokes, the piece had been performed just once since 1950 before being added to the I Fagiolini repertoire. The choir have also produced a rather brilliant short film of it which you can watch on YouTube.

Sung pieces are punctuated by two of Erik Satie's mystical and mysterious Gnossienes, their intricacy beautifully captured by Anna Markland on piano. A new arrangement of Ravel's “Adagio Assai” (from Piano Concerto in G Major) by Roderick Williams is also impressively handled.

A thoroughly entertaining and well-rounded evening with emotional resonance and a healthy sense of humour from a choir at the top of their game.