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.



Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis]
13 Jul 2008

A Brescian Butterfly and a bewildering Hoffman at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The disastrous 1904 La Scala premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is one of those famous annals of opera which tend to leave today’s audiences perplexed about all the uproar.

Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly, “Brescia” version

Lt. Pinkerton (David Pomeroy); Cio-cio-san (Kelly Kaduce); Suzuki (Jamie Barton); Kate Pinkerton (Lindsay Ammann); Sharpless (Lester Lynch); Goro (Daniel Fosha); The Bonze (David M. Cushing); Prince Yamadori (Elliott Madore); The Imperial High Commissioner (James Ivey); conducted Timothy Long; original production Colin Graham; director E. Reed Fisher; sets Neil Patel; costumes David C. Woolard; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production with Minnesota Opera and Kentucky Opera, with scenery and costumes by Minnesota Opera.

Above: Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)


Yet like most composers confronted with such a setback, Puccini immediately set to work revising Madame Butterfly. The second version opened three months later in Brescia, this time to resounding acclaim. Puccini, however, modified the score yet again for Parisian audiences in 1906. Although this last rendition is now the most common, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis turned to the Brescian Butterfly for the 2008 summer season. Among other differences, the late Colin Graham stated in an August 2006 director’s note that this version allows the inclusion of scenes which “soften the friction between two cultures and the boorish attitudes of Lt. Pinkerton.” Yet rarely have I seen a Butterfly with such a distasteful Pinkerton. Perhaps unrelated to questions of conflicting versions and revisions, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2008 performance of Butterfly succeeded vocally and visually, but left for me a stronger than usual aftertaste of colonialist guilt.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a familiar favorite at Opera Theatre after turns in Suor Angelica and last year’s Anna Karenina. In Act I, Kaduce’s Cio-cio-san was sweet, understated, and insecure — all appropriate for the 15 year-old bride. Kaduce’s dulcet voice suits this role well, and lends youthful believability to her interpretation. Kaduce gained some additional scenes in this version, particularly a poignant final confrontation with Sharpless. Her acting appropriately deepened as Act II progressed; although Cio-cio-san’s unshakeable faith in Pinkerton still hinted of adolescent obsessiveness, Kaduce pulled off the culminating death scene with poised and powerful passion.

David Pomeroy sang Pinkerton rather loudly and passionately, with ringing top notes. His tenor projected very well, though he at times lacked dynamic and rhythmic nuance. Good-looking but completely callous, the English text only highlighted Pinkerton’s annoying range of jingoistic bluster and female objectification. Perhaps this takes Butterfly a bit too seriously, but this interpretation certainly emphasized the negative side of the tenor (anti) hero. For those who like a contrite Pinkerton sobbing over his misdeeds, Pomeroy’s performance isn’t for you. The audience seemed to agree, judging by the “joking” boos that Pomeroy received during the bows.

The rest of the cast was vocally solid, with Lindsay Ammann’s Kate Pinkerton getting a bit more to sing than usual given the alternate version. Ammann has a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with good projection in the lower register. Jamie Barton sang Suzuki with a creamy mezzo-soprano and excellent diction, and kicked up the pathos a notch with her devotion to Cio-cio-san. Lester Lynch’s ringing baritone portrayed Sharpless as a man tormented by ethical unease. The orchestra negotiated the difficulties of Puccinian rubato very well, with a few minor ensemble glitches. Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham’s translation eliminated many of the clunky stresses and archaisms of some other English versions.

This Madame Butterfly achieved a beautiful simplicity notably lacking in certain other productions from OTSL this season. The lacquered black floor, the clean lines of the latticed dividers, the simplicity of rice paper and truly gorgeous lighting meshed harmoniously with the flowered kimonos of the Japanese women and the fin-de-siècle attire of the American characters. Some of the furniture in this Butterfly wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA store, but worked well when paired with the simple props of a tea set or a small devotional altar. Much was made of the movements of the singers themselves. Colin Graham cited the Japanese Kabuki theatrical tradition as his inspiration, where highly polished stages necessitate special styles of walking. All of the “Japanese” characters in this opera moved differently than the Americans, highlighting cultural difference’s role in this tragedy. This was the lasting impression of this production, a well-sung testament to the fact that in opera, love and imperialism don’t mix.

Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffman, edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.

La Stella/Olympia/Antonia/ Giulietta (Ailyn Pérez, Pamela Armstrong); Hoffman (Garrett Sorenson); Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto (Kirk Eichelberger); the Muse/ Nicklausse (Jennifer Johnson); the spirit of Antonia’s mother (Susan Schafer); Offenbach/Cochenille/Franz/Piticchinaccio (Matthew DiBattista); conducted Stephen Lord; directed Renaud Doucet; sets and costumes André Barbe; translation Stephen Lord; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production in association with Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Colorado.

Hoffman2.pngAilyn Pérez as Antonia in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)
If Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s production of Madame Butterfly embodied the simplistic aesthetic, the 2008 production of Jaques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman offered quite the opposite perspective. Obviously Hoffman’s plot is convoluted in and of itself, with the tenor’s love interests incarnated as a single soprano but known as Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/ Stella. The villains Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto are also envisioned as a single bass-baritone entity, with a mezzo doing double duty as the Muse / Nicklausse. Offenbach’s death in 1880 likewise left the score a labyrinthine mess of sketches, revisions, and too much material for musicologists to resist. Literally thousands of pages of Hoffman have come to light in recent decades, all leading to newer versions of this opera, which will in all likelihood never reach a “stable” state. Stage director and costume designer Renaud Doucet and André Barbe admit that “ if everything found so far were to be performed in its entirety, the opera would be endless. This might satisfy the scholars but exhaust the patience of any audience!” Yet all this confusion somehow became a mantra for this new production. Doucet and Barbe ask: if Hoffman is a labyrinth, what if Offenbach himself is the one misleading us through it, hiding parts of the score and even inserting himself as a character? I equally wonder whether increasing the confusion of an already messy opera didn’t manage to likewise exhaust the audience’s patience.

This version begins with a twist, centered on the 1880 unveiling of Offenbach’s splendidly gilded memorial. A man (likewise gilded) comes dashing onstage, frantically snatching at music pages falling from the rafters. Voilà! Offenbach, a new character inserted into his own opus. His first appearance drew chuckles from the audience, but as the opera continued, these intrusions seemed more and more unnecessary and illogical. We see Offenbach mincing around Hoffman during the Prologue; he wanders onstage to “play” the cello at various points in the opera; he conducts with an enormous baton at the top of the set, peering down at his characters. Prior to Act III, Offenbach casually rifles through the pages of his score, selecting a few at random to hand to the conductor. Wounded in the jealous fray between Hoffman and Giulietta, the composer is eventually killed by his own character. Does all this meta-plot really take us any further? At times the intrusions were merely comical, but at others, Offenbach was extremely distracting. The “real” Offenbach saw Tales of Hoffman as his only chance at serious opera, making it a strange twist of fate that his small golden effigy is running around onstage diverting attention from his efforts.

The staging, sets, and costume design seemed to suffer from this same overabundance of riches. The overall conception mixed beautifully rendered historical references with a few needless grotesqueries. The Third Empire style loomed large in the Offenbach memorial and a gorgeous model of the Musée d’Orsay clock (which sometimes reveals a naked woman). The central motif of the labyrinth is present throughout, usually in M.C. Escher-inspired backdrops and flooring. Spalanzani’s house reeled with lime green cloaks, a dwarf robot, strange spectacles, tin machines, and the Orsay clock. What was more befuddling was Act II’s similar urge to excess. At the voice of Antonia’s dead mother, a huge doll appeared, eventually manipulated by six Dr. Miracles. The dead mother peered over this entire spectacle from the top right of the stage, encased in a picture frame. Needless to say, all this brouhaha slightly eclipsed Antonia’s death scene. With the appearance of Giulietta, the Venetian setting elicited an incredibly elaborate world of courtesans, sea-horse headdresses, and again the Orsay clock.

Despite the almost overwhelming visual and narrative choices of this production, the vocal element mostly supported this massive edifice. Soprano Ailyn Pérez (spelled by Pamela Armstrong for a few performances) was appealing and impressive in the four main soprano roles. She seemed most idiomatic as Antonia, with her impassioned but diseased character recalling Pérez’s 2007 OTSL turn as Violetta. Her voice soared in the central section of Hoffman, especially in the opening romance and the closing trio. As Olympia, Pérez was a stellar mechanical doll. Her costume was so outlandish it was almost distracting (especially the metallic décolleté), but her jerky movements properly amused the audience. Her Doll Aria was well-acted and decently sung, though some of the rubato seemed to stem more from technical difficulties than interpretive license. She lacked a truly bell-like tone, again sounding more at home in her lyric moments than as a coloratura. The audience found Pérez truly loveable, cheering her loudly at the opera’s end.

Hoffman_StLouis.pngGarrett Sorenson as Hoffman and Matthew DiBattista as "Offenbach" in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis).
Garrett Sorenson’s Hoffman sometimes lacked necessary power, though Sorenson is clearly capable of nice open singing, evidenced by his song to Kleinzach and many of the scenes with Antonia. Sorenson’s main dramatic problem lay in his awkward stage movements, which tended to handicap any dramatic interest. Jennifer Johnson sang beautifully as the Muse/ Nicklausse, with a lovely tone to her mezzo. Unfortunately, Johnson sang the entire opera covered in heavy gilt makeup, stemming from her turn as the Muse (or an anthropomorphized statue from Offenbach’s memorial). Kirk Eichelberger’s villains were likewise occasionally sabotaged by stage silliness, such as the multiple Dr. Miracles and giant stage doll. As Dapertutto, he got laughs rather than chills as he stole the soul of Schlémihl. His voice had nice rich moments, particularly the second trio of Act II.

The chorus was excellent and really charmed the audience from their first appearance. The orchestra was generally good, although there were a few ensemble problems in the strings the night I attended. While it was exciting to hear an English version of the Opéra-Comique spoken dialogue, most of it fell flat due to stilted declamation by the singers.

This Tales of Hoffman has a gorgeous sweep and sparkle to many of the sets and costumes. The fantastic element really comes alive in the juxtaposition of Third Empire references, machines gone awry, and fearlessly vivid colors. Perhaps some of the production’s most distracting complexities will magically disappear prior to Boston Opera’s 2008 performances.

Erin Brooks

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):