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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.

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Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.

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.

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.

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.



Thomas Hampson (Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
28 Nov 2005

Thomas Hampson in Recital

Monday evening, November 21, 2005, I was fortunate enough to attend a benefit recital given by Thomas Hampson in the Fox Theater in Spokane, Washington.

Hampson, whose roots are in eastern Washington, was donating his time to benefit the renovation of the theater, an art-deco palace with magnificent acoustics that recently escaped demolition when acquired by the Spokane Symphony. Since vocal recitals by international stars are rare in my own city of Seattle, I decided to make the trip across the state to hear this one, and it was well worth the trip.

Not until shortly before I left the hotel for the theater did it occur to me to check Hampson’s extensive web site for the program, and I ultimately wished that I had done so much earlier. Hampson had chosen to present a selection of Schumann lieder with which I was not familiar, a set of Mahler lieder related to “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” texts, and eight American art songs, most of which I knew or had heard. But the printed program supplied nothing beyond the song titles, composers, and poets, and the singer’s biography. This lack was partially made up as Hampson talked to the audience at some length between the sets of songs, summarizing the texts of the German songs (and referring the audience to his web site for full texts—which I did find, although not the translations, having to follow his link to for those).

Despite using his voice for all this talking (he began by using a microphone, but as the recital continued he stopped bothering to walk over to it and just spoke to the audience), his singing voice held up well. He opened with “Lust der Sturmnacht”, followed by three settings of German texts after slightly disconcerting Danish poems by Hans Christian Anderson. Hampson presented these with an expressive range of vocal color, from his full operatic sound in the martial “Der Soldat” to intimate stillness at the end of “Der Spielmann”. Impressed as I was by Hampson’s singing, I found myself even more astonished by the accompanist’s ability to make incredible sound in the postlude to “Muttertraum” on the Kawai grand. It was clear that this was no ordinary accompanist, and indeed at the break between the Schumann and Mahler songs, Hampson apologized for having also failed to supply the bio of his accompanist for the program. He introduced Wolfram Rieger, originally from Munich and now teaching in Berlin, with whom he has collaborated for eleven years, and who has also collaborated with Brigitte Fassbaender and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, among others.

The juxtaposition of happiness with loss that had pervaded the Schumann song texts continued in the Mahler set. “Ablösung im Sommer” led the set, taken at a quick tempo. Hampson’s diction and involvement with the song were fine, although I do have to say that the spots where the singer imitates the sound of the cuckoo is more effective in the soprano of, say, Lucia Popp. I would find it hard to imagine a more heartfelt and effective performance of “Ging’ heut Morgen über’s Feld” than the one that followed. In his introduction to this set, he had described how the songs of Mahler had resonated for him from his earliest experience with them as a young singer, and “have guided me through many times since”. In singing this song he used a remarkable range of facial expression and vocal color to evoke first the joy of the external world and eventually the intense grief at the realization that the singer’s emotional landscape will never match that of the beautiful spring day. This song was followed by “Aus! Aus!” and “Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz’ “, (the latter introduced by Hampson as “one of the most beautiful songs Mahler wrote“), echoing the dark attitude toward war of Schumann’s “Der Soldat”.

Without intermission, Hampson then took a sip from a mug that he had stashed behind the piano, and invited the audience to stand up and turn around once to warm up, as the theater’s noisy heating system had been turned off during the performance (something that will presumably be fixed by the renovation). He then spoke of how he had begun his 15-20 year-long study of American art songs searching for the American Schubert or Mahler, only to decide it was a waste of time to take that approach. Instead he sees this song literature as a forum in which Americans can look at ourselves, examining what it has been to become “America”. In his view, the “quiet cultured thinking” of America’s philosophers and poets, which these songs capture, is regrettably not as well known as some of the more commercial American products that have pervaded the world. He spoke with warmth and enthusiasm of his current project with the Library of Congress to bring some of the library’s vast collection of American song before the public through his current recital tour. He mentioned Stephen Foster’s project as wanting “to write the Thomas Moore ballads all over again” in an American context. and recounted the work of Arthur Farwell with the Wa-Wan press, which sought to make serious American music available to Americans. Despite the fact that much of this discussion was delivered between songs, without aid of the microphone, Hampson continued to sing beautifully a representative selection of the undeservedly obscure American art songs that he has championed for some years.

The section began with two rather dark texts about shipwreck: Charles Griffes’ “An Old Song Re-sung” and Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea”. After these we heard “Grief”, by the African-American composer William Grant Still, which ends with the exhortation to the weeping angel to “raise your head from your hands” to see “the white dove, Promise.” In this last song in particular, the magic in the accompaniment was matched at the end by that of the pianissimo in the voice. This song was followed by Arthur Farwell’s “The old man’s love song”, based upon an Omaha Indian melody. In John Duke’s setting of “Richard Corey,” Hampson at first returned us to the mundane world in which the title character moved, the accompaniment’s illustration of how he “glittered when he walked” so apt as to prompt giggles from the audience, until the final line when he “put a bullet through his head.” The next song on the program had clear relevance to the occasion, as Hampson evoked his early memories of excitement at hearing music in the very theater in which we sat by singing “Memories”, by Charles Ives. The first section was taken so quickly that at first the singer and accompanist seemed to race against each other, but it had settled into a dead heat by the time Hampson gave a robust performance of the whistled sections, and ended when the accompanist announced “Curtain!”, at which point they shifted to the “rather sad” memories of a bygone era and family member. We returned to the world of ships and the water in the final two programmed songs, first an arrangement by Stephen White of the folk song “Shenandoah” with a majestic accompaniment that was matched by Hampson’s full heroic voice in the first verse and the tenderest of pianissimo in the “I love your daughter” verse, which was sustained through the end of the piece, at which point the accompanist launched immediately into Aaron Copland’s energetic “Boatman’s Dance.” In the master class that Hampson gave the following day, he repudiated critics’ use of the term “vocal coloring”, saying that singers do not have “a crayon box for color”, but rather that if the singer is truly expressing the emotion of the song, the sound quality will vary accordingly. Well, whatever accounts for it, there was throughout this recital a satisfying spectrum of sound, providing sufficient sonic variety and surprise to create in the audience a range of emotion beyond that which was clearly already there in welcoming a favorite son who had achieved international stardom back into the historic theater where he had first been inspired by live classical music performed by the Spokane Symphony.

Prolonged standing applause followed the conclusion of the Copland, and there were several encores. In the first, Hampson invited the audience to sing along, and when we realized he was singing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” many of us did join as he conducted us, but we gradually dropped out, as most of us acknowledged it was in fact Hampson we had all paid to hear, and by the second verse it was likely that no one knew the words anyway. His second encore was given in response to a request, “Roses of Picardy”, by Haydn Wood. The third encore, “Don’t Fence Me In,” was a tip of the hat to another local celebrity, Bing Crosby, and Hampson’s personality, never retiring, opened up still further with an appropriate cowboy accent and walk. In the final encore, Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, apparently dedicated to the audience as representative of a treasured community in which this international star has his roots and sees the values expressed in American song, it began to be evident that the animated talking in the underheated auditorium was starting to take its toll on his lowest notes, and this time he allowed the stage hand to continue to raise the hand-painted original fire curtain that had served as backdrop, as he and Wolfram Rieger bid us good night and retired behind it.

Barbara Miller

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