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Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

During this exploration of music from the Austro-German Baroque, Florilegium were joined by the baritone Roderick Williams in a programme of music which placed the music and career of J.S. Bach in the context of three older contemporaries: Franz Tunder (1614-67), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1701) and Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The work of these three composers may be less familiar to listeners, but Florilegium revealed the musical sophistication - under the increasing influence of the Italian style - and emotional range of this music which was composed during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Leoncavallo: Zazà - Opera Rara

Charismatic charm, vivacious insouciance, fervent passion, dejected self-pity, blazing anger and stoic selflessness: Zazà - a chanteuse raised from the backstreets to the bright lights - is a walking compendium of emotions. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s eponymous opera lives by its heroine. Tackling this exhausting, and perilous, role at the Barbican Hall, The soprano Ermonela Jaho gave an absolutely fabulous performance, her range, warmth and total commitment ensuring that the hooker’s heart of gold shone winningly.

L'ospedale - an anonymous opera rediscovered

‘Stay away from doctors; they are bad for your health.’ This seems to be the central message of L’Ospedale - a one-hour opera by an unknown seventeenth-century composer, with a libretto by Antonio Abati which presents a satirical critique of the medical profession of the day and those who had the misfortune to need curative treatment for their physical and mental ills.

Šimon Voseček : Beidermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force. These days, though, there are young people among the regulars : a sign that appreciation of Lieder excellence is most certainly alive and well at the Wigmore Hall. .

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.



07 Dec 2004

Rigoletto at Amsterdam (and an appraisal of tenor Joseph Calleja)

How does it come about that "modern" productions date so quickly while "traditional" ones can go on for ages ? Probably, because ideas that once were fresh and innovative are immediately picked up by everybody in the business, copied (sometimes...

How does it come about that "modern" productions date so quickly while "traditional" ones can go on for ages ? Probably, because ideas that once were fresh and innovative are immediately picked up by everybody in the business, copied (sometimes ad nauseam) and seem stale when they reappear some years later.

For one moment I thought that the great recycler-of-the-one-idea-he-ever-had, Mr. Robert Wilson, had directed the Amsterdam Rigoletto. During the prelude the chorus slowly raised their arms in the well known tai-chi manner while the ugliness of their red unisex penguin costumes reminded me of the horrors during the second act of Aida at De Munt in Brussels (later spewed out at London's Covent Garden). A few whispered words told me that the director actually was the Dutch Monique Wagemakers, best known for her work as director of a regional company, and that the production had first been shown in 1996. Miss Wagemakers succeeded exceedingly well in rehashing all clichés of Das Regietheater. The chorus was not only a company of courtiers but of course were viewers as well from high on at the events in the last act. A normal floor is out of the question when one can use an inclined plane that is a comment on its own on what's happening. And to top it all (pun intended) Rigoletto's house is somewhat reduced to one very high steep and rather small flight of steps. There Gilda may sing her Caro nome and there she is kidnapped. One could almost sense the fear of soprano and chorus when they had to wrap her in and then lower her down after Zitti, ziti. And the poor baritone had to run up quite a few steps before able to launch his Ah ! La Maledizione and as could be expected, the voice had no air left and it was only a tiny curse. In short Miss Wagemakers only succeeded while trying to free us from old clichés in giving us new ones.

Mind you, I realize only too well that an old war-horse as Rigoletto is difficult to renovate; especially after Jonathan Miller's updating to Little Italy in the fifties at the English National Opera some 20 years ago. That was an example of a well thought out production that made the opera seem like new to me and I admit, made it difficult for this reviewer to accept the traditional court of Mantua. Still give me the court any day if the alternative is a box of clichés. The one positive aspect of this Rigoletto was the treatment of the singers. No impossible gestures and the face firm to the public.

Conductor Daniele Callegari is a man who knows his Verdi and I was somewhat surprised he chose the easy option to make an impression now and then: either too slow tempi (the prelude) or too fast ones (Cortiginani vil razza). But most of the time he kept a firm rein on the orchestra and was not above indulging his singers. Anthony Michaels-Moore was Rigoletto. I wonder if he could make the same excellent impression in a theatre a size bigger (say Covent Garden). Michaels-Moore is excellent in early Verdi and I liked his Doge in I due Foscari at De Munt very much. He is no roaring madman as Bastianini was and for a moment I wondered if Rigoletto is not a shade too heavy a role. But he succeeded admirably. The voice is smooth, well-rounded and used very stylishly. He often reminded me of Fischer-Dieskau's famous DG-recording in the way he treated words and phrases. But Michaels-Moore 's voice is not a short tenor manqué but a real baritone with a firm brown core and a strong secure top.

Young Italian soprano Cinzia Forte sang Gilda. She has a nice lirico with a firm coloratura technique; somewhat like Rosanna Carteri or young Moffo. The first act she remained a little too bland, too colourless. Just a nice but not too distinct voice. But this changed in the second act when the voice bloomed and took colour. She will probably go far. Roles like Sparafucile and Maddalena are sometimes not cast from strength but one realizes the importance of good voices in these roles as well when one has suffered the hollow ugly tones of both Mario Luperi and Graciela Araya.

And then there was tenor Joseph Calleja whom I had heard a few years back at De Munt in Don Pasquale. In the meantime his career is going fast, maybe even a little too fast. There is a first recital on Decca where he sings a lot of stuff that is simply unsuitable for the voice like Adriana Lecouvreur. So I wondered how much he had improved on his very fine Ernesto of a few years ago. First of all, the voice has gained in strength and volume without damaging the basic colour. Imagine a little bit of young Björling mixed with parts of young Pavarotti and add a healthy dose of young Tagliavini while the small fluttery vibrato is all Calleja's own. In short, a mellifluous and exciting lyric tenor sound in the very best Italian tradition. The voice is maybe not over big but carries extremely well in a difficult theatre like Amsterdam. The only weakness for the moment lies at the very top of the range and that is somewhat unlike Pavarotti and Björling but more than one tenore di grazia had a short top. Still that has improved too. The high B in La donna è mobile rang out freely, courtesy of Maestro Callegari who allowed his tenor a deep breath before attacking the note. Calleja (please pronounce his name as if he would be Spanish, thus Calle- ch- a) for the moment has not got a high C and he should refrain from taking the high option in Addio, addio which he sang in falsetto. There is one Pavarotti-feature he should better not emulate. He will be only 27 next January and already has got weight problems which make costume designers looking for solutions so as not to accentuate his girth. So, please Mr. Calleja, try to rein in your appetite after a performance and it will be better for your breath too.

Now having heard both Calleja and Villazon at Amsterdam in a few months time (and Florez at De Munt), how do they compare ? Villazon is definitely the better actor though as a singer he has his weaknesses too: not much of a piano and not a shameless top note hunter either as is Florez. Calleja definitely has the more beautiful voice, the most exciting rich timbre of all three. His is a golden sound that reminds us of the very best Italian lyric tenors. Villazon is an exciting performer and an impressive voice with his dark smooth sound sometimes quivering from emotion like the fine verismo tenors before the war. Florez lacks either the exquisite sound of Calleja or the big sound of Villazon but is nevertheless a miracle in his repertoire. Personally and this is personal indeed I'd place Calleja nr. 1, followed by Villazon and Florez on third place. But how lucky we are that after the dreary lean years of the late eighties and nineties we have once more such three fascinating tenor voices.

Jan Neckers

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