Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.

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.



Deborah Polaski
18 Sep 2007

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and Capriccio in Paris

Name this stage piece if you can:

Paul Dukas: Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
Richard Strauss: Capriccio

Above: Deborah Polaski (Ariane)


The set design seems to be a mental hospital or minimum security prison. Lighting is institutional and colorless. Video cameras are trained on the doors and interiors, and the images are projected as if on a large security screen. Costuming is mostly drab and clinical, save one man-in-charge in a business suit.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? “Whose Life Is It anyway”? “Dead Man Walking”?

Nope, this was the design for Paul Dukas’ “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” that premiered at Paris Opera Bastille on 13 September.

This particular musical consideration of the Bluebeard story is based on the play by Flemish author Maurice Maeterlinck, whose static stage works are characterized by mysticism, pre-occupied with death, and propelled by fate. Dukas was a friend of Debussy, and while the latter’s influences can be heard in this opera, Dukas was a noted teacher and inventive composer in his own right. Although perfectionism led him to destroy much of his work, and while today he is known primarily for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” his sole opera contains much to be admired, including compelling orchestral effects for a very large ensemble, quite grateful (and even tuneful) vocal writing, and a tour de force role for dramatic soprano. More’s the pity, then, that a rare opportunity to experience this jewel was wasted in such a lackluster setting.

It is supposed to be set in Bluebeard’s castle, of course, but here in this mid-20th century institution, the requisite doors are all there, the different rooms are tidily appointed, and the cubicles are separated by “windows” that allow us to see everything happening within the minimally-structured “frames.” But it becomes very very tedious to look at after about ten minutes.

Too, it is hard to make much spatial and structural sense of it when one minute the characters are seemingly “contained” by the compartmentalized low “walls” and expansive “window panes,” and the next they are blithely scampering through and over them as though they don’t exist. The structure also makes hash of so many textual references to stairs and cellars and gates and all, that you sort of just have to say, “okay, they are nuts, let’s accept that they aren’t making sense.”

The video cams that are trained on the doors, that show off “Ariane’s” jewels in the sink (!), that focus close-up on the fatal sixth door “lock” (oooooh, spooooooky -- not) turn out to be a bad idea gone wrong. They catch goofy brief glimpses of things like the Nurse’s handbag, until she moves and we are left looking at the damn’ wallpaper pattern in black and white on the large vertical screen that dominates the right side of the stage.

In Act Two, when the (unseen) villagers revolt, catch phrases from the libretto (“kill him,” “after him,” etc.) are rather comically projected evoking silent movies, needlessly duplicating the super-titles, and alternating with close-ups of sinks-locks-wallpaper. Only once does a projection rather “work” artistically, when the bound, wounded Bluebeard stumbles in from the down stage left door, and a cam from the wings captures him, Ariane, the Nurse, and the other wives in a cross-stage shot. But as I stared at it, I thought “why am I looking at this screen when there are live actors on the stage?”

Happily the musical side of it was mostly wonderful. I often find Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting workmanlike at best, and eccentric at worst. However, on this occasion he led a fine reading, scoring all of the musical high points and keeping the singers and the large instrumental ensemble quite well-balanced in this sometimes problematic house. The pit responded to his leadership with exceptional playing.

The estimable Willard White was luxury casting in the small yet important role of Bluebeard (who sings not a note in Act II). Julia Juon poured out dramatic singing of the highest order as the Nurse, and all of the wives were very good, most especially Diana Axentii as “Sélysette.” And now the “mostly” part of the “mostly wonderful” musical side:

While Deborah Polaski sang “Ariane” beautifully 85% of the night -- which is to say in the lower, middle, and upper-middle registers -- she sadly no longer has the “money” passages above the staff where the voice was frayed, the volume was loud-to-louder, and the acquaintance with pitches was far too casual.

Up until recently one of our leading dramatic sopranos, too many “Isolde’s” and “Brünnhilde’s” seem to have exacted their price. I hope she can take time to get back to her usual high standard, ‘cause we need her. She was not helped by an unflattering costume: a beige business suit with floppy felt hat that made her look like a henna-rinsed spinster school ma’rm in comfortable shoes. She was certainly never really “bad,” but to makes its full effect the opera needs a tireless soprano on top of her form, a far more beautiful production design (perhaps starting with the diva’s attire), and oh yes, meaningful direction.

One of the nuttier things she was made to do: when “Ariane” is supposed to tend to “Barbe-Bleu’s” wounds, she puts her over-the-top diamond necklace over-the-top of her buttoned-up white blouse, reverses her jacket to don it as a white lab coat, and violently wrenches away the rope that was binding prone and beaten Bluebeard. Ouch. Nurse Ratched lives! Be-jeweled yet! Then she reverses the procedure, becomes natty Miss Ariane again, and primly announces “I must leave now.” Dumb.

The production team was vociferously booed and jeered by much of the house, and the enthusiastic applause that had greeted the singers and conductor, immediately went nearly silent when they came on stage. Note to opera producers everywhere:

If much of the audience is vocally disapproving your artistic choices, indeed if not one person is cheering them, if most of the patrons stop clapping to protest the ineffective production: you are doing something wrong! Who are you serving with stuff like this? Not poor Dukas. Not the poor singers. Not the poor paying public. Then, who?

Thanks, I feel better now.

And in fact, I felt much much better the very next night when I attended a truly wonderful production of “Capriccio” at the Palais Garnier. Now let me say up front that director Robert Carsen also may not be to all tastes. And every moment in every production of his may not click. But far more often than not, he tells the story clearly and illuminates the content with fresh images and apt concepts. He takes intelligent risks, and when he scores, man, he scores big.

That said, since this production began on the bare stage, I had initial misgivings. They did not entirely go away when the opening string sextet was played on-stage in front of a piece of a bucolic scenery drop flown in, with the “musician Flamand” (Charles Workman in fine form) hovering and fretting around the fringes, and the Countess (fabulous Solveig Kringelborn) at first seated and spot-lit 3/4 of the way back in the auditorium, following along in the score. Eventually, though, the upstage loading doors were opened, revealing a mirrored and chandelier-ed salon that could have been a foyer in the Palais Garnier itself.

Servants moved chairs, tables, harpsichord, harp, etc. from this area to the main stage as needed to accommodate the action. In the frenzied (and terrific) ensemble when all hell breaks loose, another (full) drop comes in, props come out of chests, and there was plenty of color and variety. The entire piece was uncommonly well blocked, with clarity, imagination, motivation, specificity, and fine delineation of character relationships.

After Taupe’s (venerable Robert Tear) charming scene, played in front of an act curtain after he scrambles on stage from the prompter’s box, this curtain raised to reveal an identical act curtain and old-fashioned foot lights, which in turn raised to reveal the here-to-fore far upstage elaborate “foyer,” now re-imagined and filling the stage as a beautiful old-fashioned drop-and-wing set. The Countess, previously costumed in a beautiful dark green satin gown, had added a sheer black mesh version over the top of it which was alive with bugle beads, spangles, and sparkles. We discover her “doubly” glowing in this elaborate set, as she is facing upstage and fully reflected in the mirrored back wall. This was a stunning, chills-inducing coup de theatre. Thank you, Mr. Carsen.

After her beautifully sung final scena in which she “decides not to decide” whether she prefers the suitor “music” (“Flamand”) or “words” (“Olivier,” effectively played by young baritone Tassis Christoyannis), the entire set slowly rises to the fly loft, leaving us again on a bare stage. After an infectious ensemble performed by the furniture-striking servants, fine soloists all, “Countess” and her “Steward” (wonderful bass Jerome Varnier) exit through the real stage door.

Hartmut Haenchen conducted a thrilling reading with his customary heart, skill, and spirit. His excellence deserves to be better known. It was great to hear: Olaf Baer still singing very well as the “Count”; big-voiced Doris Soffel’s “Clairon” as sort of Tallulah-Bankhead-playing-Margot-Channing; the “Italian Singers” Elena Tsallagova and Juan Francisco Gatell who made the most of their featured roles; and Jan-Hendrick Rootering who seemed to be channeling Richard Griffiths (“Harry Potter”) as “La Roche,” with girth and over-sized demeanor that were married to terrific vocals.

But while the ensemble must be excellent, for me this “conversational piece” rises or falls on the success of the soprano, and well, the stunningly lovely blond Ms. Kringelborn had all the vocal goods and star quality to make this a memorable rendition. Occasionally, I wished that she would let phrase-ending top notes blossom instead of pulling them back, but this is a minor quibble as she let rip any number of times with soaring phrases of creamy tone. This was a major assumption of the role by a singer in full control of her musical and dramatic gifts.

All in all, these two outings made for a memorable start indeed to my Paris Opera subscription series.

James Sohre

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):