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Macbeth, LA Opera

On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.



02 Jan 2005

Trois Valses at Théâtre Royal de Liège

Wow ! Les Trois Valses comme il faut in Liège Laurence Janot (Fanny Grandpré) and Jean-Baptiste Marcenac (Octave de Chalencey) For the year's end the Walloon Opera always offers some lighter fare. A few years ago we saw a very...

Wow ! Les Trois Valses comme il faut in Liège

Laurence Janot (Fanny Grandpré) and Jean-Baptiste Marcenac (Octave de Chalencey)

For the year's end the Walloon Opera always offers some lighter fare. A few years ago we saw a very fine La Périchole and then the way was free for some bad American musicals like last year's Sugar (= Some like it hot). This reviewer who rates Lehar, Kalman, Rodgers and Kern almost as high as any member of the Holy Grail of opera composers was therefore more than happy that Liège offered some Oscar Straus. Not that this Straus (with one "s" as he dropped the second "s" in his surname for fear people would think he was a member of the dynasty) composed a neglected or unforgettable masterpiece with his Les Trois Valses. Originally the operetta was created at Zürich as Drei Walzer in 1935. Composer and librettists had a nice idea for a quick buck. It starts as the story of a dancer and a noble in the France of Napoleon III. To save his military career she leaves him and Paris. In the second act her daughter (a famous chansonnière) and his son meet thirty years later, fall in love but due to a misunderstanding separate. Once more thirty years later granddaughter (famous movie star) and grandson (assurance seller) meet and this time everything works out for the best. Straus arranged music by Johan Strauss-père for the first act, dipped into Strauss-son's compositions for the second act and composed an original score for the last act. By 1935 however classical operetta was already moribund. The continuing success of Lehar's last tragic works has led us to believe that Land des Lächelns, Friederike, Zarewitch, Schön ist die Welt and Giuditta were somewhat typical but they definitely were not. On the contrary, only Lehar's stupendous melodic gifts succeeded in making a success out of them. By that time movies were all around and theatres were looking for spectacular countermoves. Salaries and costs were raising, so were the numbers of spectators needed to pay for all that jazz. More people meant more popular features and therefore music adapted to the lowest common denominator. It was the birth of the spectacular revue operetta whereby theatrical effects were often more important than musical substance (exactly the same happened with the classical American musical). The most important role shifted from the composer to the producer who found the money, engaged a composer and a librettist and added or subtracted songs by other people if he found the music too sophisticated, with too little hit-quality. The best example of is the perennial Im Weissen Rössl (White Horse Inn), nominally by Ralph Benatzky but with most of the hits by other composers.

This was what more or less happened with Drei Walzer. The extremely popular French soubrette Yvonne Printemps saw a performance of the original, had Straus play the score for her and asked the boss of the Bouffes Parisiens for his opinion. The man was flabbergasted. This was a very traditional operetta which would need a good tenor who would drown Madame Printemps. He had a better idea. He retained only a few bits of the music of father and son Strauss, gave all the tenor's music to Printemps as well and made the hero a speaking role he could cast with the young French actor Pierre Fresnay (later on best known for his fine acting in Monsieur Vincent). Straus' score for the third act was strewn over the whole operetta so that musical content is somewhat thin. But a smashing success it was. London and Broadway producers took notice, compared the original with the new French version and went for the last one of course. For more than sixty years this French version has held its own in all French speaking countries while the original has completely disappeared and it is no co-incidence that only the French version was recorded complete.

So what did the Liège production look like ? Its director was Jean-Louis Grinda, general manager of the Walloon Opera. Grinda simply went the same way he had gone with his production of La Périchole. He respected the ideas of the original authors and stuck to 1867, 1900 and 1937 as dates for his three acts. So no unnecessarily updating which would have somewhat clashed with the music. He clearly believed in the story and didn't use it to ridicule it or to give it three layers. Therefore the performance took flight and one could believe in the characters; always difficult in an operetta with such an enormous amount of co-incidence. Though there has to be a comic relief in it, it was not searched in a vulgar or overblown way. The last act was a wonderful smile upon the way movies adapt a story to suit their commercial needs. The two youngsters are supposed to act in a movie about the tragic love of their grandparents and one couldn't help laughing at the movie clichés that were performed while one had seen the simple truths of life in act one. Grinda was of course helped by the spectacular, rich and costly demands of the opérette-revue: every act had three new and fine settings (Dominique Pichou was the designer and the fine costumes were drawn by Danièle Barraud) so that the eye had always something new and fine to look at. Casting such operetta's nowadays is a Herculean task: the two main parts are always played by the two same actors but there are 27 other roles as well. Of course this can only be done by assigning several roles to the same actor but with the aid of a new costume, a hairdo and some change of voice 12 actors took on the task.

French Laurence Janot sang and acted the female lead and she took our breath away when she did quite a lot of fine high class dancing herself in the first act till it dawned upon us that she was a former ballerina. Though she is over forty she succeeded exemplary well in her three roles and she has a nice and warm lyric soprano with probably more decibels than Madame Printemps ever had. Her partner Jean Baptiste Marcenac (speaking role) proved to be as excellent in the many serious as in the comic moments. All other singers performed their roles with enthusiasm and I even noticed the return of former fort tenor André Jobin (son of Raoul) in three bit parts. I was struck by one painful fact. The not so young public is clearly not accustomed any more with the genre. It has been educated far too long (all over the world) with a notion that music theatre is art, not fun and one shouldn't show too much enjoyment. Fifty years ago each musical number would have been applauded and the temperature would have risen far more quickly while now most of the two first acts went in silence. By the last and best act the public had finally understood that one could freely laugh, cheer and applaud.

Jan Neckers

[Click here for additional information on this production.]

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