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Isolation Arias: Richard Farnes

Richard Farnes was Opera North’s Music Director between 2004 and 2016, during which time he conducted many notable productions, including Wagner’s Ring cycle, which is currently available to watch in full online. Next spring, he returns to conduct a new concert staging of the composer’s final opera, Parsifal.

Here he shares his favourite pieces to listen to while at home, plus one live performance that continues to go ahead – lockdown or no lockdown – every day.

Listen to the Spotify playlist »

1. Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle: The Seventh Door

The grinding harmonies, the extraordinary orchestration, the inexorable increase in tension as Bluebeard describes his previous wives to Judith (his latest), and the manner in which everything evaporates to an empty stillness in the closing bars; all these add up to the immensely powerful climax of a disturbing and unsettling piece of psycho-drama that asks rather more questions than it answers.

I think if I could have only one number in isolation I’d have this – provided that I could take the entire opera!

2. Verdi, Macbeth: ‘Gran scena e duetto ‘Mi si affaccia un pugnal?!’

This is Verdi’s setting of ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’, and Macbeth’s subsequent exchange with Lady Macbeth after murdering King Duncan. Just as he was to do many years later in the Otello/Desdemona duet at the end of Act One of his penultimate opera, Verdi through-composes the scene without tarrying too long to develop any one idea.

It’s like a continuous stream of consciousness, each musical contour illustrating perfectly the text to which it’s aligned, whether it be the self-doubt eating into the protagonist’s mind or the chiding of his wife as she urges him to get his act together and behave like a warrior. The muted strings in the orchestra lend the scene a wonderfully eerie, nocturnal quality.

3. Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi’

While Susanna dresses Cherubino as a girl in Act Two, she sings what is hardly an aria at all, but a brilliant example of Mozart setting to orchestral music what his predecessors might have left as mere recitative.

Much of the vocal part retains that recitative-like quality and is almost subsidiary to the glorious orchestral line that propels the dressing process forward – just as well, really, since Susanna is usually kept busy on stage with ribbons, and has far more ‘important’ things to do here than just sing!

4. Janáček, Katya Kabanova: Act One, Scene 2

Katya tells Varvara of her happy childhood before she married and came to live under the oppressive roof of her terrifying mother-in-law. The sheer beauty of the music here underlines Katya’s free-spirited, poetic nature as she describes how she could have died of happiness going to church and imagining she was rising up to heaven.

Above all, it sets up a brutal contrast with the subsequent humiliation she and her husband receive at the hands of his mother, when they are ‘instructed’ how to say farewell to each other.

5. J S Bach, St Matthew Passion: ‘Mache dich, mein herze, rein’ 

Bach is just about my favourite composer and his Passions are surely music dramas akin to opera but out of a very different tradition.

This gorgeous and moving bass aria – ‘Make thee clean, my heart, from sin’ – comes just after the crucifixion but before the body is removed for burial. When taken at a good pace, it has an uplifting, positive spring in its step at a deeply reflective point in the story.

6. Britten, Billy Budd: ‘Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray!’

A remarkable moment of calm in an opera seething with malice and corruption.

Billy contemplates death with incredible poise and bravery, and the simplicity of Britten’s writing seems to emphasise Billy’s unfailing integrity, as well as underline the discrepancy between his physical might and his lack of authority within the naval hierarchy.

7. Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel: ‘Der kleine Taumann heiss’ ich’

I chose this bit from Act Three because I didn’t think I’d be allowed to have the whole of Act Two! The Dew Fairy wakes the children in the forest with a wonderfully uplifting version of the twilit Sandman music at the end of the previous act.

Great to shave to on a bright, sunlit morning, having just heard …

8. Various composers, The Dawn Chorus

Attending most live performances is impossible just now, and may be for some time to come. However, here’s one that’s available every day at this time of year without fail. ‘Chorus’ is a misnomer, since what you hear is hundreds of individual arias all jumbled together. In March and April, the performance is dominated by residents such as robins and great tits, but becomes richer towards June as more migrants join the throng.

This miracle of Nature is yours for just the price of getting out of bed a bit earlier than usual, and comes highly recommended!

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