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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

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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.

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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

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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.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).



Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez
04 May 2008

La Fille du Régiment at the Met

When the Met presented La Fille du Régiment for Lily Pons during World War II, she sought permission to wave the Cross of Lorraine, symbol of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French, during the Salut à la France in Act II.

Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment
Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 29.

Marie: Natalie Dessay; Tonio: Juan Diego Florez; Marquise: Dame Felicity Palmer; Sulpice: Alessandro Corbelli. Conducted by Marco Armiliato.

Above: Natalie Dessay (Marie) and Juan Diego Florez (Tonio)


The Met management opposed the idea (what next? setting operas in contemporary costumes?), but Pons was a diva of the old school, impossible to discipline or embarrass — she knew the wartime audience would roar and that Met General Manager Edward Johnson wouldn’t dare reprimand her. As for the opera — if a diva is cute and funny and has the high notes (Pons, we hear, scored on all three counts — so, in my own experience, did Sutherland and, at least in early years, Sills), then nothing can go wrong: Donizetti’s vehicle is a ’54 Chevy, handsome, unpretentious and unbreakable. Fill ’er up with high octane and she’ll take you where you want to go.

Too, since Pavarotti revealed the opera as a tenor vehicle as well, the boys get to share the limelight, and for the last few years (at least since Hermione Gingold began to camp it up — recent entrants include Montserrat Caballé at Covent Garden), the two-line speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp has expanded like an accordion to become a major player. At the Met these days, Marion Seldes gets two scenes and two outfits, as many costumes as the prima donna.

Having heard last Saturday’s broadcast (full of audience giggle), I went to the Met’s new production of La Fille (shared with Covent Garden and Vienna) expecting to lean back and enjoy myself, and I did. So, as far as I could tell, did everyone else in the packed house. First of all, there’s the irresistible Donizetti fable, full of sentimental regret (during the reign of pacific Louis-Philippe) for the days of Napoleonic gloire, with march-time send-ups and regimental ditties (what does “rat-a-plan” mean? It’s not in my Larousse), as well as sentimental numbers that almost play themselves — the duet where Tonio and Marie “prove” their love to each other’s exacting specifications, the delicious trio of old comrades, “Tous les trois réunis” — all of it melodious, hilarious, touching by turns, a musical with good singing and no agonized American idols. La Fille couples lack of pretension with Donizetti’s deft, professional hand at achieving exactly what he wants to achieve: the characters do not surprise us — they’re much too straightforward for that — but they’re worthy of the happiness they want, and our hearts are warm when they get it.

Laurent Pelly’s production has a backdrop concocted by Chantal Thomas from nineteenth-century European maps that form a mountainous Tyrolean landscape on which Juan Diego Florez (who grew up in the even steeper Andes, right?) takes an occasional pratfall while otherwise twirling like a curly-headed Fred Astaire in lederhosen. If the guy, lately married in the cathedral of Lima, loves his new bride half as much as he loves cutting up for 4000 strangers she’s a lucky woman.

Natalie Dessay is charming when singing showpiece roulades while ironing longjohns, when advancing on the enemy while seated on the floor in a doll-like position, when striding about the stage with robotic gestures — the same gestures and movements that tickled us when she played Olympia in Hoffman and Zerbinetta in Ariadne. But the constant mugging, intentionally or not, distract from imperfect fioritura and breathless concluding notes, indeed from vocalism — you have to force yourself to pay attention to the singing to notice it is being done at all. I could have done without a great deal of the frenetic business — she never calmed down long enough to let us enjoy the beautiful music she and Donizetti might have made together. Charm is undercut by this level of aggression, and it is possible to charm, even in knockabout farce, without channeling Lucy Ricardo. Nor is it necessary to make invidious comparisons to the equally funny but musically richer performances of Sutherland or Sills (or Freni, who sang the loveliest, purest “Il faut partir” I’ve ever heard). Merely cast an eye on Florez for balance: yes, he gallivanted adorably, yes he sang eighteen high C’s — pure, even, perfectly produced high C’s at that — in order to provide an encore, and stepped out of character to bow when they were done — but when it was his turn to be Tonio, the naïve and ardent lover, and to be quietly sincere, then quiet sincerity is what he gave us. He knows when to turn off the spigot of farce and still be present. Dessay does not seem to know how to do this, and her constantly jokey performance in due course tired me out. Perhaps if she’d put a little of that gag energy into maintaining a bel canto line, we’d have real opera here.

When Florez first set foot on the Met stage a few years back, his rapture at having an audience to delight was like an electric shock passing visibly through his body and outwards to tingle everyone present, but though his Rossini technique was surely the most extraordinary of any tenor in a hundred years, the voice itself (as he admits) was gruff, unbeautiful, lacking sensuality. The instrument has lately grown larger and more lyrical, more capable of sustaining beautiful sound, with no noticeable decline in flexibility and an ease at filling an enormous theater that can only thrill. Too, he knows how to act like an oaf so as to win any and every heart. A perfect performance.

Felicity Palmer makes an elegant eldritch marquise (though why her German schloss of Berkenfeld has added a letter to become the English Berkenfield is a puzzle) and Alessandro Corbelli a stout, bald Sergeant Sulpice. After a scrappy slog through the overture, Marco Armiliato shaped up in the pit, and gave every sign of enjoying himself. Mention should be made of choreographer Agathe Mélinand, whose four housemaids polishing furniture while doing ballet exercises had us all in stitches, and who — I presume it was her idea — had the soldiers keep waltz-time with their helmeted heads to Florez’s encore.

John Yohalem

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