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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.

COC’d Up Ariodante

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

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“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.



(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine) Photo by Mark Kiryluk
27 Aug 2007

New opera from China crosses national boundaries

It’s clear today that China’s Cultural Revolution has led to a cultural revolution that — in music at least — has made the country’s artists frontrunners on the international scene.

Above: (L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine)
Photo by Mark Kiryluk


From 1965 to 1976 all Western art was forbidden in China as the embodiment of bourgeois decadence. And although the shadows of repression and censorship fell upon artists in other totalitarian states, nowhere was a ban so intensely carried out as in the China of Mao and his sometimes-actress wife.

Take the life of Han Jiang Tian, the impressive China-born bass now at home in the opera houses of the world and star of Guo Wenjing’s “Poet Li Bai,” premiered at Colorado’s Central City Opera on July 7. Tian’s musician parents were sentenced to “reeducation,” while he was sent to work in a factory. His piano teacher went to prison. He recalls smashing the family’s records of Western music to avoid further accusations of guilt.

When the Beijing Conservatory reopened in 1978 composer Guo was one of 17,000 who applied for admission. There he was the student of Zhou Xiaoyan, head of the opera department. Then 85, she had studied in Paris, and then spent the years of the Cultural Revolution in rice paddies.

The Central City team for “Li Bai” — dramatist Xu Ying, director Lin Zhaohua and designer Yi Liming — are all of this same generation, and — given this background — their dedication to the “new wave” of Chinese music that is now sweeping the world is hardly surprising.Guo, along with composers Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi, are the first generation of Chinese artists to reach maturity after the Cultural Revolution. And although the subject matter of their works might seem far removed from the modern world, this sad chapter of history shaped and defined them.

When one surveys their work — Dun, Sheng and Chen Yi have long been residents of this country — one senses an immense creative energy — indeed, a fervor — that built up in them during years of repression and was released with the end of Maoism. With two premieres by Dun in a single season — “First Emperor” at the Met in December and “Tea: A Mirror of Soul” on stage in Santa Fe later this summer, these composers are now dominant figures in America’s opera houses. (Sheng’s “Madame Mao” was premiered in Santa Fe in 2003, after his “Silver River” had made the rounds of summer festivals.) The Central City premiere, beyond doubt the highlight of the company’s 75th anniversary season, left a capacity audience stunned both by the beauty and the dramatic impact of Guo’s 90-minute, one-act work.

Li Bai, an 8th-century poet forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, was a free spirit who went his own way — even if this resulted in exile and death at 42. Parallels felt by artists in modern China are self-evident. And they offer insight into the intensity of his story and the metaphoric significance that it has for artists there today. Indeed, Tian portrayed Li Bai in his final hours — an inner dialogue largely with his Muses Wine and Moon — as if he had been waiting for this role his entire mature life. Since “Poet” is billed as “a Western opera sung in Chinese,” it seemed appropriate to ask just how Western — or Eastern — the work is. “Definitions are not important!” Guo said in an interview, emphatically waving the question aside. “Descriptions say nothing about the work!” He went on to stress that although much in “Poet” is derived from classical Chinese opera, the new work stands in no direct relationship to this tradition. The markings of tradition were stronger in his earlier works, he added.

Guo draws a sharp line between the fusion of East and West encountered in good contemporary Chinese music and the “simple Westernization” in which some engage. This, he stresses, leads to kitsch or “silly sweetness” — to a boring compromise where everything is tasteless. He compares it with the mediocre food served at many “Chinese” restaurants in the West. The sensitive melding of East and West , on the other hand, brings new energy to Western music much as Bartok did almost a century ago and as Argentina’s Oswaldo Golojov is doing today. “Different races together make a more beautiful baby,” Guo says.

Works by Dun and Sheng have been performed thus far in English, and the original libretto of “Poet” was in that language as well. Guo, however, insisted that the work be sung in Chinese — in part because of constant references to — and quotations from — Li Bai’s verse.The language of the poet’s time, he points out, was largely monosyllabic. It lends itself to narrative singing, enhanced by verbal ink splashes and delicate brush strokes in the text. (“Poet” calls for an orchestra of 50, plus a single Chinese bamboo flute.)

Dutch conductor Spanjaard, on the CCO podium for “Poet,” has worked with Guo on various endeavors since 1991. He is especially impressed by the composer’s ability to make gloomy subject matter attractive. Indeed, the conductor speaks of an “excitement of gloom” in these scores and of Guo’s ability to create “an electric atmosphere” through his incredible command of orchestration. And CCO general and artistic director Pelham (“Pat”) Pearce notes how impressed he is by Guo’s writing for voice in other works. “He knows how to let the voice soar,” Pearce says. “His vocal lines are a gift to singers.” It can hardly be overlooked that the Magistrate, the man who speaks for the absolute state in declaring Li Bai guilty, is the only figure in the opera appropriated from Peking opera. And in tenor Jiang Qihu’s singing of the role one senses the cold edge of absolute power that was the standard in Mao’s China.

The genesis of “Poet” dates back to 2000, when Hong Kong-born Diana Liao, a United-Nations translator and frequent collaborator with Chinese composers, began work on the libretto, which she soon completed with the help of playwright Xu Ying. It was destined for a Central City premiere, when support for the project came from Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, a volunteer organization headed by Liao’s sister Martha, whose basso husband Hao Jiang Tian was the obvious choice for the title role.

While Guo worked on the score, this collective took to the country’s Silk Road to gain a “feel” for the landscape where Li Bai had roamed on horseback. To insure the success — and authenticity of the staging the CCO recruited an all-Chinese cast and production. This genesis, of course, says little about the artistic achievement involved and the overwhelming impact that the work had on the opening-night crowd in the historic Central City Opera House. It was a unique experience for those present, for there has been nothing like “Poet” before — not even in other works by Guo.

Guo’s cross-fertilization of East and West has resulted in a largely lyrically and totally tonal idiom — new, personal and original — that combines both traditions in mesmerizing music. Long melodic lines resist tonic-dominant “pull” and hover hauntingly over the story of the ill-fated poet who enjoys the respect among Chinese that Anglo-Saxons lavish on Shakespeare. “When I write, I really don’t want to reflect what happened a thousand years ago,” the composer commented. “I don’t know how it sounded — nobody knows how it sounded. “I write entirely for the audience of today.”

Supporting roles in “Poet” were magnificently sung by Li Bai’s Muses, tenor Chi Limig (Wine) and soprano Ying Huang (Moon). Special praise was earned by a chorus of 30 from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, impeccably trained by Catherine Sailer.“Poet,” Guo summarizes, underscoring the universality of the work, “is the story of the hopes and fears of a legendary man who loved life with a passion to the very end.” And although in the opera Li Bai dies reconciled with the word, an undertow of sadness in the score recalls the era in which it was written.

Here, too, the shadows of recent history lend weight to the work, which in its way also pays tribute to those who did not survive the persecution and prisons of this age. The CCO premiere of “Poet Li Bi” further celebrated the 20th anniversary of co-commissioner Asian Performing Arts Colorado, major force in bringing project to fruition. Li Bai, by the way, is not a stranger to many in the West, for Gustav Mahler drew heavily on his verse for the texts in “Das Lied von der Erde.”

Wes Blomster

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