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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.



German bass Franz Hawlata sings the title role of Wozzeck in San Diego Opera’s production of Wozzeck, directed by Des McAnuff. Photo © Cory Weaver
23 Apr 2007

Wozzeck at San Diego Opera

“What drives a man to insanity and murder?” asks the poster for San Diego Opera’s new production of Wozzeck, which closed this Sunday after a run of four performances.

Alban Berg: Wozzeck
San Diego Opera, 22 April 2007

All photos courtesy of San Diego Opera


In the week after the horrific crime at Virginia Tech, the question strengthened this great but harsh masterpiece’s claim on the attention of an opera-going public still hesitant to expose itself to the work, over 80 years past its premiere. San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell’s greeting to his company’s patrons in the program almost begged for their indulgence: Wozzeck “is ‘not’ Aida or Madama Butterfly,” he helpfully explained, but a work that “took opera in new directions.”

During the performance Sunday, a few audience members took the “old” direction toward the exits during the scene changes, creeping out as Wozzeck, apparently, creeped them out. The majority stayed to extend warm appreciation to the hard-working cast at the opera’s conclusion — a rather abrupt one, with the last note from the orchestra beating the curtain down, a true rarity.

American tenor Chris Merritt is The Captain in San Diego Opera’s production of Wozzeck, directed by Des McAnuff. Photo © Ken HowardCampbell turned to a theater director new to opera, as the news-making Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera has done. San Diego has been the home base for Des McAnuff, who has helmed Tony-award winning musicals from Big River in 1985 to Jersey Boys in 2006. With scenic designer Robert Brill, McAnuff created an eerie, tense Wozzeck, without the slightest hint of any showbiz glitter. The cast, in Catherine Zuber’s time-appropriate costumes, live in a cold, clinical world: the uni-set most resembles a hospital amphitheater for clinical examinations, with metallic scaffolding forming tiers on the outside, and a huge, tilting disc of lights hanging over the empty center. Unfortunately, the designers decided this should be a revolving set, and the turntable apparatus made an unacceptable amount of noise, especially in the scene where Chris Merritt’s Captain noted how quiet the evening was.

The “examination room” concept makes sense as a metaphor for the work’s detailed analysis of Wozzeck’s breakdown, but it also serves to distance the audience from the poor soldier’s plight. If everyone is living in the same cruel confines, why is he the only one who descends into madness? In the interludes between scene changes, film (designed by Dustin O’Neill) filled the stage-covering scrim. Some of the images brushed up against cliche, such as time-elapsed shots of dark clouds streaming through a gray sky. For the most part, the dead-eyed visage of Franz Hawlata’s Wozzeck stared out. His unchanging expression — or lack of same — served to work against a sense of increasing anxiety to approaching doom.

So with this, his first attempt at an opera, McAnuff may have felt hesitant to bring the full-force of his skills to the production. His direction, while detailed and well-structured, provided no fresh perspectives. Merritt’s Captain screamed and strutted like a borderline psychotic himself. Dean Peterson’s doctor, on the other hand, seemed a pallid figure, offering tame diet advice after a perfunctory prostate examination. Jay Hunter Morris’s Drum Major did capture both the masculine appeal and brutality of his character.

American soprano Nina Warren sings Marie in San Diego Opera’s production of Wozzeck, directed by Des McAnuff. Photo © Cory WeaverAs Marie, Nina Warren truly cut a pathetic figure of desperation, both in the face of her own lust and her partner’s advancing paranoia. Her top rang out with a cutting edge that made your reviewer interested in hearing her Salome, or even Elektra.

At the center stood the forlorn figure of Franz Hawlata, pale and haunted, the lower range of his voice seeming to echo in the emptiness of the character. Wozzeck’s demise, however, came with the production’s arguable misfire, with Hawlata, instead of descending into water, having to strap himself onto a disc that mirrored the lights above. The disc then rose and tilted as a scrim descended, with film of a watery surface projected on it. The theatrical effect deadened the dramatic intention.

By far the greatest strength of the performance came from the orchestra under the leadership of Karen Keltner. Last heard by your reviewer leading the musicians in the very different score of Bizet’s Pearlfishers (!), Ms. Keltner caught the grinding dissonance and also the many moments of spectral beauty in Berg’s score.

Though by no means a “missed opportunity,” after this only intermittently successful Wozzeck McAnuff, if he continues to direct opera, should be confident enough to bring more daring and personal insight into his work. In the meantime, almost as a reward for their attendance at this still-challenging work, the SDO patrons can look forward to Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, closing the 2007 season with familiar melodies and a starry cast. And perhaps after Wozzeck, the pain underneath the laughter in Da Ponte’s libretto will seep through.

Chris Mullins

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