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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.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



04 Apr 2005

Albert Herring/Eugene Onegin/Genoveva in Boston

I ended last week with three very different operas here in Boston. On Thursday, the Boston Conservatory of Music put on a nicely designed, lovingly directed production of Britten’s Albert Herring. Based loosely on a Guy de Maupassant short story Albert sends up English small town blue stockings who stage an annual May Queen pageant, finding themselves unable to find a young woman of acceptable virtue in the immediate area. Their choice falls on a May King in the person of Mamma’s boy Albert Herring who is mortified by the whole experience. Albert proceeds to use the cash part of his prize to go off on a toot, stay out all night to return home a happier, wiser and far more independent young man, to the chagrin of all.

A View of Boston

A Tale of Three Operas

I ended last week with three very different operas here in Boston. On Thursday, the Boston Conservatory of Music put on a nicely designed, lovingly directed production of Britten's Albert Herring. Based loosely on a Guy de Maupassant short story Albert sends up English small town blue stockings who stage an annual May Queen pageant, finding themselves unable to find a young woman of acceptable virtue in the immediate area. Their choice falls on a May King in the person of Mamma's boy Albert Herring who is mortified by the whole experience. Albert proceeds to use the cash part of his prize to go off on a toot, stay out all night to return home a happier, wiser and far more independent young man, to the chagrin of all.

The sets were inspired by Victorian photographs, the costumes were satisfyingly full of high Victorian frou-frou, Lady Billows even had a most appropriate Victorian figure. David Powell who sang Albert possesses a high, clear, sizeable lyric tenor and admirably clear diction. The orchestra did well by the score under Bruce Hangen's buoyant direction.

On Friday, the second Boston Lyric Opera performance of Eugene Onegin was a study on the depths of romantic passion. Stephen Lord ignited a deeply felt, exciting performance. In the pit, horns and trumpets had a very good night and everyone on stage and in the pit appeared to be "on."

Designer Bruno Schwengl and director James Robinson created a lovely romantic world backed by a stand of tall white birch with furniture and props as required. The look had almost certainly been influenced buy the current MET production (Mme. Larina's party featured an oval of chairs within which the guests gossiped and danced, and very little else, for example) but had much to say on its own. Robinson made a point of linking Tatyana and Lensky as equal victims of Onegin's alienated inability to feel or give in a relationship. She had always with her the romantic novel and he had always his little notebook; during the cotillion when the chorus was focused on the off-stage dancers, only Tatyana and Lensky were left in the oval of chairs, each nursing hurt inflicted by Onegin. A wonderful touch was to have the servant girls hang out a laundry of white bed sheets to dry on the way to picking berries and for Tatyana to hide among them in panic at Onegin's approach. After shooting Lensky dead in the duel, Onegin bowed formally to the two seconds, carefully picked up and brushed off his coat and hat and strode coldly from the scene as if nothing disturbing had happened.

Schwengl's costumes were richly detailed, flattering and sharply distinguished as to class and character. As with the emotions of the principals, white and black predominated, white in acts one and two, funereal black in act three. Not all of the action was "realistic." Some was poetic and indicative of the psychological situation of the characters at any one time. When Tatyana enters in the final scene she comments that she feels again like a young girl waiting in panic for Onegin and breaks the face of a table clock as if time no longer exists.

The cast was a strong one. Maria Kanyova's slender, angular body and features suited a still gawky teenager perfectly. Her wide-ranging voice, secure top and slightly Slavic sound sounded fin in the music and she tore into the phrases with passion or a lovely delicacy as required. She has remarkable dynamic control. Garrett Sorenson's Lensky was probably the favorite of the audience. The upper middle and top of his voice have a brilliant spin and freedom that create a satisfying buzz in the ears and he phrases beautifully. The lower middle and bottom are not yet fully developed and need work, but his potential would seem to be enormous as there is no sense that the voice has been overused or abused in any way, and the basic sound is very beautiful. Completing the main trio, Mel Ulrich has the vocal color and affect for the anti-hero. A bit more power in the biggest moments would be welcome but he didn't force or distort the line at any time and the voice is all of a piece from top to bottom.

Dorothy Byrne and Josepha Gayer worked well together as Larina and Filipyevna. Both have strong lower ranges and their opening scene registered sistinctly against the off-stage duet of the two girls, something that does not always happen. John Cheek's Gremin had warmth and dignity but his voice has dried significantly and a persistent unsteadiness undermined the first part of the aria that is essentially his whole part. Because the lowest notes are still solid and full, he concluded successfully. Elizabeth Batton's vibrant mezzo and volatile personality worked well for Olga. Frank Kelley either decided to sing Triquet with a clinical depiction of a very old man's voice or is losing breath and solidity of tone. Either way, legato suffered and there were many intrusive breaths in the middle of lines.

On Saturday night a real novelty--Robert Schumann's Genoveva, produced in concert by Emmanuel Music in an effort to show that the opera is viable musically and dramatically and deserves revival. A similar effort for Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella a couple of years ago only pointed up the static nature of that pretty but unexciting work, but Genoveva is something else again. Schumann unquestionably knew how to shape a scene and, at the same time that Wagner premiered Tannhauser in Dresden, was experimenting with monologs that developed from or segued into scenes, rather than producing a string of closed form arias. The prelude to the final act prefigures the feeling if not the harmonies or chromaticism of the third act of Tristan.

In structure, Genoveva seems to have looked to existing works for some guidelines. Once the gender of the rescuer and the rescued is reversed, act four is structured exactly like the second act of Fidelio. Genoveva is led to a desolate place to be secretly executed by two minions of the villianous Golo; a hunting horn fanfare alerts them to the arrival of her husband, who frees her; the set then changes to the first scene of the opera where a local official (baritone) and a jubilant chorus greet the couple and praise their heroic qualities.

James Maddelena's baritone has become darker and more powerful over his long career and sounded wonderful as Count Siegfried. As his wife Genoveva, Sara Pelletier created a most attractive character with her shimmering lyric soprano and lyrical phrasing. Frederick Urrey handled Golo's high tenor lines with ease after a bit of a warm-up period and Krista River made the most of the sorceress Margaretha in whom the program notes see a prefiguration of Klingsor. The role would probably benefit from a more dramatic voice than Ms River's smoothly lyric one but in a moderately-sized venue she was able to score all the necessary points. David Kravits gave strong support in tow roles. Veteran conductor Craig Smith got warmth and passion out of his cast, chorus and orchestra. The audience's reaction to the opera built steadily all evening, ending in genuine enthusiasm. Genoveva is viable indeed.

William Fregosi

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