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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.



John Adams (
06 Mar 2007

Adams/Sellars “Tree” blossoms sublimely at SFS

Compared with Pamina and Tamino, Kumudha and her Prince, the central figures in “A Flowering Tree,” the John Adams and Peter Sellars collaboration given its American premiere on March 1 by the San Francisco Symphony, walk a rock-strewn road.

True, the young lovers of “The Magic Flute” sometimes emerge from realistic stagings of Mozart’s last opera dripping and singed around the edges, but their trials are nonetheless symbolic. And, furthermore, they follow the traditional pattern of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl with the two living happily ever after.

Kumudha and her Prince — they come from a 2000-year-old South India folk tale — invert the process; they start out blissfully together, but their happiness is soon shattered by their imperfect world.

There is good reason to draw parallels between the two operas, for Sellars asked Adams to compose a score for Vienna’s 2006 New Crowned Hope Festival. Sellars, curator of the program, sought new works from a cross-section of artistic genres sparked by “a conversation with the luminous music of Mozart’s final year.”

(New Crowned Hope was the name of the Masonic lodge to which Mozart belonged in Vienna.)

Adams immediately chose “Magic Flute” as his point of departure, stressing, however, that “the connection is more one of spirit than of substance,” yet pointing out that “both operas share a central theme of youth, the evolution of moral consciousness, transformation — both physical and spiritual — and magic.”

And like the “Flute,” “Tree” too is essentially a fairy tale, which the Storyteller begins: “Children, I want to tell you a story.”

It is a story excitingly told through the intense interaction of text, music and dance that makes it a unique achievement of music theater.

Music theater?

Yes, for the collective concept avoids the question of whether “Tree” is actually an opera. Scholars will argue the point, stressing — after all — that the three San Francisco performances of the work were given by the Symphony in Davies Hall, not across the street in the War Memorial Opera House.

And, indeed, ‘Tree’ has something of an oratorio about it, with the Storyteller functioning much as does the Evangelist in the Passions of J. S. Bach.

But why worry about the label for a work so endlessly moving?

“Tree” calls for only three singers — Kumudha, the Prince and the Storyteller, who are seconded by a trio of dancers, Doppelgänger, as it were, who bring animation to the narrative and amplify the inner emotions of the singers.

Vocalists in San Francisco — as in Vienna and Berlin — were soprano Jessica Rivera, stellar as Nuria in Osvaldo Golojov’s “Ainadamar” at the Santa Fe Opera in 2005, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Eric Owens. All three are young artists of promise, distinguished by their thorough command of this score and their obvious commitment to it.

The Javanese dancers — Rusini Sidi, Eka Supriyanto and Astri Kusuma Wardani — were also responsible for the choreography for this semi-staged production.

Action was confined to three overlapping ovals that shared the Davies stage with the orchestra and to a smaller space above and to the left of the ensemble. The simplicity of the staging complemented the leanness of Adams’ score and of the libretto. Written by Sellars and the composer, the text runs a mere 9 pages in the SFS program book.

The overwhelming quality of the work is its beauty, a word that one uses with hesitation in talking about new music. Too often suggests the warmed-up Brahms of the now largely forgotten New Romanticism of a few decades ago or the embarrassed hovering at the edge of dissonance where many modernists dwell, fearful of losing their audience should they move one step further from the triad.

Adams’ embrace of tonality is unashamed and without apology, for it comes from the heart; this — like its story — is music with a soul.

And, yes, Adams’ early minimalism (he turned 60 in February) is still present, but only as a subtext in a score, in which craftsmanship and accessibility are remarkably balanced.

For “Tree” too, one might say, marks a transformation in the career of this, America’s most-performed living composer. Here it is the lyricism of long sustained lines that dominates; rhythmic figures, although subtle, are never complex.

The work is through-composed — without big arias or “numbers” — and this accounts for its easy and seamless flow.

“Tree,” which runs 2.5 hours with a single intermission, is clearly a major work. It centers on four scenes of transformation, for — recalling Richard Strauss’ Daphne — Kumuhda is able to change herself into a tree, which she does to escape the recurrent miseries of her life.

For these scenes, the backbone of ‘Tree,” Adams has written music that is truly transcendent — rich in its sonorities and textures and mesmerizing in communicating the emotional impact of the story.

Like the “Sea Interludes” in Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” these sections of the score will no doubt become an orchestral suite.

Essential to the work is the chorus, which Adams says should number at least 40 singers. The SFS gave him more than twice that number, superbly rehearsed by David J. Xiques, the brightly dressed ensemble was a major participant in the drama at hand.

“Tree” is scored for a symphonic ensemble of medium size with a massive percussion battery.

At a pre-performance interview Sellars characterized the work as a masterpiece of “joyful transformation,” which sums up its essence and its impact.

Kumuhda and her Prince find each other and their love again at, but only after a journey through pain and adversity, and it is this honesty about life and the blows that it deals that account for the authenticity of “Tree.”

Like the last two of Mozart’s 40 symphonies — the pensive D Minor and the exuberant “:Jupiter” — this is the other side of the coin explored by Adams and Sellars in their 2005 “Doctor Atomic,” the tale of physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer’s Faustian flirtation with the force of infinite destruction.

Indeed, Sellar’s recently referred to the earlier opera as ‘Adams’ ‘Götterdämmerung.”

“A Flowering Tree” is a co-commission of the San Francisco Symphony, Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival, the Berlin Philharmonic, London’s Barbicon Centre and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The composer conducted the Viennese premiere; Simon Rattle was on the podium for the Berlin performance.

And, by the way, “Doctor Atomic” will be on stage at Chicago Lyric Opera between December 14, 2007 and January 19, 2008.

Wes Blomster

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