Recently in Performances
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
21 Feb 2005
Handel's Semele at Scottish Opera
A tale of everyday mortals and gods entranced a nearly full house at beleaguered Scottish Opera last night with the same clever mix of pathos, wit, drama and humour that has kept nations’ favourite soaps at the top of the viewing and listening schedules for decades. And it was the visual elements as much as the vocal and musical that clinched the success of this premiere performance last night. Director John la Bouchardiere (of “The Full Monteverdi” fame) worked with a light touch that engagingly mixed some pretty unusual elements into a confection that finally had the audience calling its approval. Likewise, young Christian Curnyn on the podium brought his Early Opera Company experience and love of truly modern stagings of Handel to bear, and managed to persuade the SCO orchestra to eschew both vibrato and swooping lines without adding any extra period instrumentalists, save a harpsichord. Apart from a slightly unconvincing first 10 minutes (of more later) they played with increasing verve and apparent conviction throughout.
Ambition, Deceit and Eroticism -- Handel's Semele at the SCO
19 February 2005
A tale of everyday mortals and gods entranced a nearly full house at beleaguered Scottish Opera last night with the same clever mix of pathos, wit, drama and humour that has kept nations' favourite soaps at the top of the viewing and listening schedules for decades. And it was the visual elements as much as the vocal and musical that clinched the success of this premiere performance last night. Director John la Bouchardiere (of "The Full Monteverdi" fame) worked with a light touch that engagingly mixed some pretty unusual elements into a confection that finally had the audience calling its approval. Likewise, young Christian Curnyn on the podium brought his Early Opera Company experience and love of truly modern stagings of Handel to bear, and managed to persuade the SCO orchestra to eschew both vibrato and swooping lines without adding any extra period instrumentalists, save a harpsichord. Apart from a slightly unconvincing first 10 minutes (of more later) they played with increasing verve and apparent conviction throughout.
If ambition looms large in this story of poor, upwardly-mobile but slightly foolish, Semele then so does deceit and eroticism. The former was much in evidence from the outset -- and it was the director deceiving the audience for the first ten minutes or so, as the curtain rose on a most unexpected scene. I suppose that I, and most of the audience, were expecting some revelation of new production -- perhaps an elaborate period set, perhaps a weird and wonderful Germanic "concept" design, perhaps -- nothing? Well that's what we got at first -- nothing. Or rather, just a few boring lines of grey metal office chairs set out for a chorus in a dark grey non-set, with four single ones in front, obviously for the four characters who start proceedings -- King Cadmus, Prince Athamas, Semele, and sister Ino. I began to wonder if I was here under false pretences and was about to see a "semi-staged" version of this opera/oratorio. There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the house. And this was also the only time that I felt the orchestra was strangely detached from the drama, oddly jerky and with disconcerting moments of silence between some recitatives and arias or arioso.
But all became clear slowly -- very slowly -- as the pre-nuptial ceremonies commenced. The full chorus were in modern black gear, scores held out as in oratorio proper, and the four soloists also in sombre black modern dress and also clutching their music books for dear life began the formalities of Semele's forthcoming wedding to Prince Athamas. But, bit by bit, one noticed things not quite right, little glances, Semele looking more and more hunched and dejected, Athamas more and more puzzled, until at last the poor bride- to-be hurls herself away from the courtly protocol and declares herself for Love and Jove. Lisa Milne was in fine voice from the start with excellent diction and a nice touch in endearing silliness so necessary in explaining the subsequent action. Her soprano is rich and her coloratura assured and with breath to spare. Michael George was a resolute Cadmus (and later Somnus too) and his bass- baritone more than a match still for the orchestra below, although perhaps not as athletic as it once was. Athamas was sung by a countertenor new to me: Arnon Zlotnik. A tall, slender young man with an engaging if not particularly compelling stage presence who sang sweetly but without much dramatic power or expression as yet. As is the case often today, most of the role's original arias were cut and only one -- "Your Tuneful Voice" as he is "consoled" by Ino -- remained and was, sadly, somewhat lost in the singing. It requires a long legato line, heartfelt expressive despair and superb breath control to reveal the thing of beauty it really is. Best left to the likes of a David Daniels perhaps. Another experienced Handelian, Susan Bickley, lined up alongside Milne and George and took on the roles of both Ino and the vengeful Juno -- and very successfully pointed up the two so-different female characters by both vocal timbre and charming, and comical, expressivity. Her voice suffered a little from competition with the orchestra from time to time as she did not have the dynamic power of her fellow sopranos. The vocal "find" of the evening for me was young Kate Royal in the gift-role to actress-singers of Iris: PA to the Gods and generally inept fixer extraordinary. Hers is a strong, rich, and occasionally thrilling voice with huge potential, although at the expense of diction last night. Which leaves Jove, or Jupiter, himself: always a vocal pivot in this work and one of Handel's most interesting tenor roles when sung by an intelligent as well as highly competent singer. Both of which Jeremy Ovenden is, on this hearing. Since I last heard him, his voice seems to have grown in several ways and his line, power and coloratura were all excellent without ever going "out of style". Of course everyone was waiting for the "Big Song", and he despatched that most beautiful of Handelian love arias with both elegance and technical assurance, and we were transported to those Arcadian glades and saw those trees bow down with just an inflection of voice and a shift of light and shade. It was entrancing.
And that brings me to the most interesting aspect of this production: the light. Light as back-projected universe, light as mirror, light through a film lens and light as in defying gravity. This was the "Light Show Semele" I felt, and once we escaped the bleak opening scene, the full inventive skill of video artists, lighting designer, costumier and aerialists came into play. Yes, aerialists -- if this production had been presented a year or two earlier they could have advertised it as "direct from the Millennium Dome!" The first intimation of things of the air, rather than the earth, came when Jupiter -- in full elegant 18th Century kit -- doffed his hat in front of his beloved and it flew upwards and away into the heavens.... disconcerting for Semele as well as us. Another time "Iris" literally flew in to answer Juno's call for assistance -- cannily being replaced by Kate Royal at a vital moment in the wings. And why not? This was Up There, and the whole design seemed predicated on the contrast between the mortals' rather glum earth- bound existence and the floating, sun-kissed and gravity-defying world of the immortals. The best was left for the seduction of Somnus scene by scheming Juno: his besotted love for the nymph Pasiphae played upon by her teasing him with the sight of his heart's desire descending a rope, apparently completely naked although of course cleverly body-stockinged, and performing balletic aerial manoeuvres of a gentle eroticism that certainly woke the old duffer up and enabled the theft of his magical powers. Back projected images of the world spinning in the universe came and went at suitable moments, as did a wonderful piece of scenery: the floating pillow bed, refuge to Semele in moments of both ardour and despair. Looking rather like a huge inflatable dog bed, she either reposed on it, Lady Hamilton style, as it swung gently on near-invisible wires or it was used as prop when brought to earth for both Lisa Milne and Jeremy Ovenden to clamber over and on to. It also had the slightly discomfiting ability to move of its own accord across the stage -- one wondered for the safety of the singers if it ever got out of control -- which distracted one's attention from the music somewhat from time to time.
If there was a slight disappointment, it came at the end. After the visual delights of the earlier scenes, and a highly emotional death scene as Semele was pulled down into a dark opening breathing her last after Jupiter has carried out her fatal wish, (again cleverly achieved by effective mix of video and stage drama) I felt that the final redemptive, revelatory scene of Apollo's decree, and the birth of Bacchus from her ashes was rather short-changed and cursory. More could have been done I felt, and was left with a feeling that perhaps either the money or ideas had run out. But that is a minor grumble indeed, and not indicative of the effect of the whole.
The Glasgow audience was loud and long in its appreciation last night -- musical director Curnyn and stage director La Bouchardiere receiving much deserved plaudits for pulling off a delightful and, I hope, long-lived production that married so many theatrical elements very successfully. Don't let the words "multi-media" put you off seeing this most charming and elevated "Semele".