Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.



Paul Nilon (photo: Dallas Opera)
18 Feb 2007

Opera North: Breathing new life into “Orfeo”

Friday night in Leeds, in the North of England, at the city’s marvellously restored Grand Theatre, with the pavements outside shining wet and a tidal wave of umbrellas surging past, was an exciting place to be.

Above: Paul Nilon
Photo: Copyright and courtesy of Dallas Opera


I was lured by England’s only national company outside of London, a new production by Christopher Alden of Monteverdi’s seminal masterpiece, and a debut in the role for one of England’s most talented yet under-rated tenors: Paul Nilon. Not one of the three attractions disappointed.

Opera North is on a roll at the moment; it has a beautiful old theatre as its home, decorated in a palette of deep red, green and gold, not to mention some fabulous original Victorian tiling now exposed again in all their glory, and is planning even more work in a Phase Two to bring back to life the adjoining Assembly Rooms as another rehearsal and performance space. Aligned to these physical plans is their continuing commitment to challenge preconceptions of opera, advocating lesser-known works (later this season they are presenting Kaiser’s “Croesus”) and to breathe new life into the classics. You don’t get very much more classic than the opera that virtually invented the art-form, and Christopher Alden has most decidedly set out to challenge a few well-worn notions of this favola in musica.

First of all, the evening’s staging is seamless and without interruption by interval which makes for a long sit — some one and three quarter hours. Secondly, Alden gives us just one physical location with no traditional “descent” into Hades, no Styx, no dark and flaming scenes or flying deities. As the curtain rises we are taken to a large room — possibly a palace or ducal space — floored, walled and canopied in a kind of giant parquet wood effect in shades of brown. The costumes are non-specific modern: jeans or dresses with Tudor touches in the form of the occasional ruff or slashed velvet doublet. A few high niches in the side walls are the only entrances and exits for a necessarily agile cast of singers — each niche must have been at least four feet from the boards. Apart from that, just an array of sofas and easy chairs provided visual detail and a base for the assembly of singers who in turn played the wedding guests, the chorus, the Furies and, the audience. Audience? Yes, in a way they were just that, for in this production Alden and Nilon combine their talents to persuade us that this is not Orfeo as hero, great lover or mystical muse; rather, he is Orfeo the Artist, the Performer, and subject to all the angst therein. His great aria Possente spirto is delivered in the form of a nervous singer giving an audition, complete with hastily-erected music stand, shaking hands and despairing glances at an unmoved Caronte. Equally challenging to the paying audience was the way Alden played with our expectations of the ill-fated Eurydice: she seems anything but delighted to be marrying Orfeo, more than happy when dead, and — a typical Alden touch — when masking-taped to a wall to denote her passage into the Underworld she is transmogrified into the character of Speranza who encourages Orfeo to convince the infernal gatekeeper Caronte to let him follow his love. Caronte spends his time sitting in one of the ubiquitous armchairs, apparently reading the Obituaries column of the Times. A nice touch.

For some in the first night audience (a gratifyingly full house) these ideas pushed them out of their comfort zone; but even if Alden’s love-affair with masking tape (used not only to fix poor Eurydice upright to a wall, but also to delineate Pluto’s kingdom and occasionally confine Orfeo) irritated some, then there could be no argument with the quality of the music making. Quite simply it was fine, idiomatic, and intensely stylistic throughout without ever making the mistake of sounding overly “old” or pedantic. Chris Moulds directed a twenty-strong period band, each element of which accompanied different characters, different “affects”, in different parts of the story — recorders, cornets, sackbuts and harp adding a rich sonority to the strings and ubiquitous theorbos.

Of the singers, Paul Nilon of course has to carry much of the opera. This was his first attempt at the character, which is surprising when one considers his great experience in baroque and classical roles, but he rose to the challenge and indeed threw down another to singers currently regarded as masters of the role. Nilon is superb when portraying disturbed or emotionally tangled psyches — his Grimoaldo in Handel’s “Rodelinda” springs to mind. His Possente Spirto e formidabil Nume, the great central pivot of the opera, was superbly sung, superbly acted. If it lacked the icy elegance of an Ainsley or Bostridge, in the context of this production’s most human of heroes, it convinced entirely. The desperation, the hope, the desire of every performer to please an audience, in this case the implacable gatekeeper, was in every note and gesture of this intensely written tour de force for the human voice.

The supporting roles were all consistently well sung and acted — Anna Stephany as Eurydice/Speranza is fulfilling her promise as a young English singer to watch, her voice full and coloured, nicely differentiated between the roles. Among the other female voices, Ann Taylor in the dual roles of La Messagiera and Prosperina had a glorious bloom to her voice, and an amusing stage presence when required. The minor male roles were equally consistent in quality of singing — standouts last night being basses Graeme Broadbent (a cavernously voiced Caronte), and Andrew Foster-Williams (a rather amusingly disinterested and randy Plutone). There were no obvious vocal weak links and this alone is a testament to the strength in depth that Opera North can command at present.

This quality was not lost on the local audience or guests: at the end of the performance there were warm ovations for all concerned, well-deserved cheers for our Yorkshire-born Orfeo — and a few cheerfully-received boos for the director. Certainly one can pick holes in some of the director’s conceits in this production: the eliding of Eurydice’s rescue and second death for instance, but safe to say both Alden and Opera North have upheld their avowed traditions in fine style.

© Sue Loder 2007

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):