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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

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.



Death in Venice
15 Jun 2008

See Venice and then die

For the belated Spanish premiere of Britten’s Death in Venice, 35 years after its creation in Aldeburgh, Barcelona seems a felicitous choice.

Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
A new co-production with Teatro Real, Madrid
Performance of 30 May 2008

Above: Waltraut Meier (Sieglinde), Plácido Domingo (Siegmund)
All photos © Antoni Bofill


The 17 scenes in this opera, succeeding at a very tense pace, profited by the Liceu’s sophisticated machinery and lighting equipments to turn the whole into a motion picture, if one unrelated to Luchino Visconti’s award-winning masterpiece Morte a Venezia. Incidentally, the opera and the film share both the same year of first release (1973) and the ominous fame of swan songs of their respective creators, neither of these having survived 1976. At that time, the openly homoerotic charge of Thomas Mann’s original novel (1913) still worked as a stumbling block for mainstream opera-goers, but nowadays the coming-out of respectable old professor von Aschenbach is probably perceived as no big news and definitely not worth such a tragic punishment as death by cholera or, arguably, a “passive” suicide.

Guilt and punishment are such stuff as tragedy is made of. Since the shift in current morals caused feeling of guilt to disappear from the Western public discourse on homosexuality (even less so in Spain, where gay couples are legally allowed to marry), tragicism is no longer an option for staging Death in Venice. Thus director Willy Decker felt bound to pepper the story a bit by adding such hypes as Aschenbach kissing the boy Tadzio on a megascreen or desperately waltzing with him around the stage. True, all that happens as if in a dream, but when the agonizing scholar gets overwhelmed by a heap of naked male bodies choking him to death, one cannot help wondering how counter-heroically all that display of flesh can work, irrespective of the viewer’s sexual leanings. Let’s stop it here, lest both the director and this reviewer be exposed as homophobics in disguise…

The tribute to postmodern commonsense having been paid, Decker felt free to follow the libretto as literally as librettist Myfanwy Piper had done with Mann’s novel. His Venice is a disquieting city peopled by ruffians, gondoliers, porters, whores and peddlers of dubious goods and services, their faces and clothes painted with garish clown-like colors. The hollow cosmopolitan socialites assembling in the Grand Hôtel des Bains at the Lido are their victims, yet Aschenbach cannot sympathize with them either. All he is after is ideal beauty, whether in a Caravaggio painting on display at a museum or in Tadzio’s angelic face. In the end, both images morph in front of his eyes into one nightmarish obsession, while the Gods of Greece — Apollo and Bacchus — fight over his soul with contrasting messages from heaven, as in a mystery play. The sets are gorgeous, with blue skies recalling Magritte and pitch-black waters in realistic movie projections.

Death-Venice2.pngleft: Uli Kirsch (Tadzio) [with Aschenbach’s Dopplegänger], right: Hans Schöpflin (Aschenbach)

The same struggle between life and death breathed from the orchestral pit, mirroring the shifts of wind and tide from the iodine scent of the open sea to the heavy stench of the Lagoon in Summer and back — a common experience for Venice visitors, cleverly described in the libretto. Under Sebastian Weigle’s baton, the taxing score emerged in a glory of harmonies and colors: full-tone scales alternating with polytonalism, piano with Java-style gamelan and far-away echoes of the Baroque. Also the singing company was top-level. The German tenor Hans Schöpflin spun his exquisite mezza voce over the stream of inner monologues and extatic flourishes devised by Britten for his aging mate Peter Pears. Aschenbach’s protean opponent, tempter, flatterer, was the Texan baritone Scott Hendrick, always magnetic throughout his seven so diverse roles. Countertenor Carlos Mena, a reputed Baroque specialist, lent his sunny and mellow alto range to Apollo’s oracles. Within the swarm of cameo roles, particular praise was deserved by the sanguine Begoña Alberdi in the double bill of Strawberry Seller / Newspaper Seller, and by Leigh Melrose, a New Yorker, whose extended narrative solo as The English Clerk in the travel bureau (“In these last years/ The Asiatic cholera has spread/ from the Delta of the Ganges”) conveyed a thrill of Doomsday.

Carlo Vitali

Death-Venice3.pngDeath in Venice, Act 2, sc. 10 (The strolling players)

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