Recently in Performances
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
16 Oct 2007
San Francisco stages triumphant Tannhäuser
At this point in his career David Gockley has no need to prove himself. He did that with awesome success as general director of Houston Grand Opera for 33 years, during which he made that company a front runner both on the American and international opera scenes.
Houston he set a record for world and American premieres and built a house - with both a 1000-
and 2000-seat theater that bespeaks the commitment of that oil-rich town to the arts. Indeed,
Gockley is the man who made opera grand in Houston and made the HGO a way of life in the
And when Pamela Rosenberg departed from the San Francisco Opera after six rather unfortunate
seasons, it was widely agreed that Gockley was the only person who could put the company
together again and restore it to the position of prominence that it had had for well over half a
century. Gockley arrived as SFO general director just before the opening of the 2006-2007
season and during that year he was largely the executor of plans made and laid by Rosenberg.
Thus it is in with the season that opened in September that Gockley’s presence is now clearly felt
in the Bay Area, and it is clear that he is doing even more than might reasonably have expected
of him in so short a time.
Gockley set out to make his mark with two productions: the world premiere of Philip Glass’
“Appomattox” and Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser, which opened on September 18 as his first
all-new staging at the SFO. And in choosing “Tannhäuser” as his signature piece, he has gained
the respect not only of his community, but of the larger opera world as well.
In an essay in the program book for the staging Gockley says that he chose Wagner’s “Italianate”
work to “make a statement on how a company views itself and what it thinks opera ultimately
is,” stressing further the necessity “to keep moving into the future just as we are rooted in
tradition.” Thus the new “Tannhäuser” is more than just one more “go” at the opera; the
production is something of a lab experiment that lets the public in on what Gockley has in mind
for the SFO. And there is hardly another work in the established repertory that presents the
challenge that Gockley sought - and found - in Wagner’s early and often revised work.
Despite those who would yoke the composer to his own 19th-century Bayreuth stagings, it was
Wagner who commanded: “Kinder, macht Neues!” - “Do something new, guys!” That Gockley
had those words in mind is obvious from the fact that 13 of 17 members of the cast made SFO
debuts in this “Tannhäuser,” and the same is true of five of the production staff - including at the
top director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown.
Vick, Brown’s frequent co-worker in Europe, speaks of the opera as a mix of “site-specific
Romanticism and open-ended symbolism,” a combination that sparks the creative imagination.
The two men see no need to move visually out of the Middle Ages, as was rather cutely done in
last season’s “Tannhäuser” at the Los Angeles Opera, where as the eponymous hero Peter
Seiffert cast his mini-harp aside and - clad in black tie and tales - sat down at an on-stage
Steinway to belt out his song of sensuous love.
That’s doesn’t make academic medievalists of Vick and Brown, for as the director explains, his
mission was to define the point at which “the content of the opera interacts with the world today”
in his quest for “a wilder, more mythic view.” And they found this by focusing upon the troubled
man that Tannhäuser is. Or as Vick puts it: “Tannhäuser’s problem is Tannhäuser.” Thus the
knightly minstrel is not torn between the sexual excesses of life on the Venusberg and a calmer
existence with virginal Elisabeth; he is rather the helpless victim of conflicting desires raging
Once the director opens the listener’s eye to this view, it is hardly surprising to realize that
Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, those early explorers of the psyche, were born -
respectively - in 1856 and 1875, well before Wagner composed “Parsifal,” his last work, and then
died in 1882. Vick thus takes Tannhäuser on a turbulent stream-of-consciousness journey that
brings unusual fascination to the opera.
“It’s the story of the married man who has left his wife and gone to live with the other woman,”
says Vick. “But he can’t settle down with his mistress, so he returns to his wife, only to discover
that he can’t live with her either. “He loses out on all fronts and has a nervous breakdown.” Thus
Tannhäuser is not lured to destruction by woman, but by his own desire; he is struggling to find
fulfillment and integration of his own personal life.
Even at the penultimate performance of the season on October 7, the production was of
exuberant freshness. Peter Seiffert sang as if 20 years younger than he was in Los Angeles a year
ago, and Petra Maria Schnitzer, the Los Angeles Elisabeth, gave an inspired performance of her
“Prayer” aria. Petra Lang was an appropriately seductive Venus. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson
seemed rejuvenated as the Landgraf. The show-stealer, however, was youthful James Rutherford
as Wolfram; his “Evening Star” will long shine in the memory. And Czech Stefan Margita —
Walther — is clearly a tenor worth watching. Ian Robertson, long chorus master at the SFO, had
his ensemble gloriously well prepared for both the arrival of the guests and “Pilgrims’” Chorus.
In Donald Runnicles the SFO has for 15 years had the services of one of the top Wagnerian
conductors of the day. Runnicles opted for the Paris version of the score with its expanded ballet,
which was choreographed by Ron Howell. While in this scene others today titillate the ageing
opera audience with a bit of soft porn, Howell took “Bacchanal” at face value and unleashed his
dancers upon the stage in a true state of Dionysian frenzy. It might not be ballet, but Howell’s
concept was totally in keeping with Vick’s approach to the story. Completing the cast, by the
way, was Alloy, a white quarter horse, who — handled by his owner Gary Sello — behaved
impeccably on stage.
This “Tannhäuser” leaves no doubt about it: the San Francisco Opera and David Gockley has
both made correct choices!