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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

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“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

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English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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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.



La Cenerentola by Josep Guinovart
30 Dec 2007

Cinderella and her Cinderfella

Once upon a time, we used to only dream about a stellar pairing like Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu has fielded for their current offering on display: “La Cenerentola.”

Gioachino Rossini: La Cenerentola

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

Above illustration by Josep Guinovart


I mean, a diva and a divo that could both easily, nay joyfully negotiate the considerable and varied vocal demands of the title role and the Prince? And handle spot-on comic acting as effortlessly as they embodied well-judged sentimental moments that truly touched the heart? And on top of it all, both be possessed of exceptional, unassuming youthful good looks and that truly elusive “star quality”?

Well, ’tis the season, and dreams do come true. Those who whine and pine for some elusive “Golden Age” or another should shut up and hurry to Catalonia to catch Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in what may just be definitive performances in Rossini’s enchanting rags-to-riches-rendition.

The beautiful, blond, Ms. DiDonato quite simply has it all. She can dispatch roulades with aplomb; color and vary seamless melismas to convey any variety of emotions; float high, middle, or low notes (and everything in between); spout out fiery dramatic phrases; or pull back to pianissimi of crushing frailty. It seems nothing in the role eludes her. She is a major artist with a beautifully schooled, richly handsome instrument, at the top of her game. Above all, she invites us into her world with a winning presence and an infectious delight, sharing her prodigious gifts in the service of one of Rossini’s most enchanting characters.

That she brought us to our knees and then to our feet with a perfectly judged “Non piu mesta” almost goes without saying. It was one of those thrilling performances when my heart began racing as fast as the coloratura, and the entire audience scarcely dared breathe. Applause and a low roar began as soon as she released the climactic note, and it built and built until the play-off finished and we seemed helpless in wanting to out-do each other in shouting our approval.

This is the kind of moment we dream of encountering in our years of routine, nicely competent opera-going, isn’t it? A spontaneous communal moment mercifully unspoiled by the likes of the Met Shush-ers (aka “The Applause Police”), where sudden perfection and the outpouring of recognition collide to make for an electric, one-of-a-kind shared experience. But far before this famous set piece, our star impressed from her very first, firmly-voiced “Una volta cera un’ re,” and then she just went from strength to strength. I felt much like Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire” when she said “You had me from ‘hello’.”

Matching her note for note, and dripping charisma (he could bottle and sell it), Mr. Florez currently has no equal in this repertoire. Having heard him now on seven occasions, this cool bel canto dude just never mis-fires. Everything in his beautiful, bright lyric voice is perfectly aligned and evenly produced; he wisely judges just how far to push it in volume; his remarkable agility knows no apparent bounds; he can spin a hushed or full-throated legato phrase that the great Kraus would envy; and he can leap octaves and tenths (maybe fourteenths) in a single bound to perfectly centered high notes.

His Latin temperament and impossibly boyish dark good looks are certainly icing on the cake to ladies of both sexes (the five Milanese gentlemen with whom I shared my box were certainly enamored, prompting much passing of binoculars). Perhaps his most special skill as a complete performer is that he knows how to effortlessly play comedy — without mugging, without shtick, without gilding the lily — he just “gets it.” So here is a Prince Charming that is fun, passionate, a looker, and…he sings, too. No wonder he gets the girl!

In my previous encounters with “Cenerentola” I have certainly always enjoyed the tenors I heard, nice voices, nice enough acting. But I never quite realized what a great part Don Ramiro could be until I first caught Mr. Florez in it in London (well-partnered with Kasarova). It is cause for rejoicing that he is just a plain ol’ star singer who can make any of his assumptions a star part.

Not to say that these two were alone in their glory, for the Liceu assembled a most winning cast. At first I thought that Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) and David Menendez (Dandini) might should switch roles. The former was more suave of voice and presentation than I had imagined for Magnifico, and the latter a little more blustery and over-the-top than any of my previous Dandini’s. But once I set aside my pre-conceptions, both won me over with their well-realized (and well-traveled) interpretations. Although the frequent rapid-fire patter from both was well-executed, what impressed even more was the underlying beauty of tone both brought to the occasion, de Simone more lyrical, Menendez more burnished.

Simon Orfila’s warm, mature, and artfully deployed bass-baritone contributed another big plus with a lovingly conceived Alidoro. In the rather one-note dramatic roles of the step sisters, Cristina Obregon (Clorinda) and especially Itxaro Mentxaka (Tisbe) always acquitted themselves well, sparkling vocally in their spunky chatter-patter, and adding substantially to the many ensembles.

Joan Font directed a highly inventive production that has also been shared between Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera -Cardiff, and Geneva’s Grand Theatre. Mr. Font and his designer Joan Guillen have come up with a cornucopia of clever touches, a riot of well-coordinated colors, and a unifying concept that deploys a “chorus” of eight dancers costumed as rats (with long pointy noses) who prettily pose, comment with movement, change scenery, and offer props along with tea and sympathy.

Amid all the bustle, and funning around, and subsequent glamor, these judiciously used rodent groupings kept us well grounded in Cinderella’s humble milieu. Indeed, she began “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto” kneeling among the rats and charmingly tousling their heads as a sort of ‘thanks’ for having been such willing accomplices.

While all the tongue-in-cheek costumes and wigs were revelatory and aptly matched to the characters, I found our heroine’s white ball gown to be a bit of a disappointment. In this signature moment of her arrival at the ball, the skirt looked too short, like a high water model, and the veil that was removed revealed a huge white powdered wig that, from my seat at least, looked for all the world like a white Afro so big it could eclipse Angela Davis. Mr. Florez’ white wig, while accurate, might also have been traded in for a brunette model to better complement his coloring.

I initially wondered why Cinderella came out for the final scene in her black, gray and white(designer) rags and a tiara, but it became clear that Mr. Font had one more trick up his sleeve. During her final aria, she distanced herself more and more from the Prince, ending alone in a spotlight, and was once again rat-handed her broom. Was it all a dream? A unique touch to end a uniquely delightful production.

Albert Faura’s excellent lighting merits mention since it was such a willing accomplice in the afternoon’s effects. The back lighting of the basic scenic structure instantly transformed it from rat-infested home to palace (in this case, also rat-infested). The interior lighting of the fireplace created a wonderful effect as the mantle lifted and it grew to create/reveal the imposing palace doors. And in a novel touch, the storm scene was accompanied by the rats operating a shadow curtain showing a silhouette of the prince in his mini-coach riding through the blustery night en route to find the girl of his dreams.

Last but not least, Patrick Summers conducted with stylistic flair, and ably accompanied the recitatives from the keyboard. Inexplicably, he got a few undeserved hoots at curtain call. All I can figure is he was apparently being taken to task for a total of about six bars in Act I when our otherwise fine Dandini slightly misjudged an entrance, and later had a very minor moment of rhythmic uncertainty. When things are moving at such a breakneck clip, the slightest moment of inattention can cause a hiccup. But I found the maestro always to be large-and-in-charge, and he led an effervescent reading that was not only well-paced, but all the while pleasingly sensitive to the balancing introspective utterances.

Seen on 23 December, this struck me as a perfect gift for the holiday season, which I recommend to companies and opera lovers everywhere as a fine alternative to the usual parade of “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Magic Flute,” and “The Nutcracker.”

At least on this occasion, in light of this dreamy Rossini, it seemed a new “Golden Age” might be possible after all. And after all, it is the season of dreams, isn’t it?

James Sohre

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