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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

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.

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).



Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1900)
20 Jul 2008

Geez, Louise

“Quelle plaisir” to encounter Gustave Charpentier’s seldom performed “Louise” at the Paris Opera in a production where most everything went spectacularly right.

Above: Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique, Paris (1900)


As re-imagined here, these are not the prettied-up and rather charming bohemians favored by Puccini, but rather a French verismo take on the lower class aspiring bumblingly to bourgeois values.

The production team chose not to set it at the turn of the century, but rather to the more drab, workaday mid-twentieth century, to good effect. I am not sure I remember any set design or more specifically, construction, as impressive as the colossal creations by Nicky Rieti. Every time the curtain was raised, another massive, detailed location was revealed to palpable audience response.

The opening expository scene was played out on sets of stairs wedged in a narrow vertical space between two low income housing buildings, trimmed in by masking, and which ascended from stage floor all the way into the flies above. This gave way to an oppressively realistic interior living/dining room that was the heroine’s “prison.” Setting the street scene on the Montmartre Metro platform was a winning and witty invention, especially as it was visually replaced by the Metro entrance with “Louise” departing it on her way to work. Her dress shop was a massive two level structure. which allowed the large female chorus ample room for interplay, and provided excellent opportunities for visual variety. The stage right windows on the stair landing opened to accommodate the passing parade and allowed “Julien” access to appear and take “Louise” away.

The libretto’s cottage overlooking Paris was replaced here by a contemporary rooftop structure that gave the lovers plenty of room to romp during the expansive love duet, and provided a more acidic visual commentary to counter-balance the sweetness of “Depuis le jour.” The subsequent scene in which “Louise” is crowned Queen of Montmartre in a mock beauty pageant was brilliantly set in a public space that appeared to be part music hall, part political rally, complete with a rudimentary proscenium stage and runway, and elevated galleries. The piece came full circle with the girl back in her hellish, mundane “prison” with her manipulative parents.

The apt costumes were created by Chantal de La Coste Messelière, who excelled with the colorful opportunities afforded by the “subway” denizens, as well as the beauty pageant participants and onlookers. The evocative lighting was by André Diot, who unapologetically used follow-spots to fine effect, witness the isolation of “Louise” after her mother convinces her to return home to her ailing father.

One reason that “Louise” may not be more frequently performed is that Charpentier’s score places enormous demands on the two principals who must convey youthful buoyancy but sing like jugend-Wagnerians. Happily, Paris came up with a terrific duo in Mireille Delunsch and Gregory Kunde.

Ms. Delunsch does not yet sing much outside of France and she deserves to. For hers is a very pliant lyric voice with a slight steely edge that not only meets the introspective demands of the role, but can ride the orchestra on the dramatic “money” moments. She does not have a highly distinctive sound, and the bit of metal might not charm those who have Renee or Beverly or Victoria irrevocably in their ear, but for my Euro she not only has the solid technique but also the pleasing stage presence to bring it off.

Mr. Kunde was a revelation to me, for he can not only melt the heart with his suave legato phrasings, but can also let rip with a gorgeous, generous outpouring of slightly weighted arching lines at full throttle. Thanks, too. to his sincere and affecting acting and ever-responsive musicality, this was the star turn of the night.

That is not to deny “mother” and “father” a place in the firmament. Alain Vernhes and Jane Henschel contributed solid vocalism and wonderful impersonations of their two unsympathetic, calculating parents. Even as they were consistently controlling, the two managed to mine every ounce of nuance out of their parts, and had their pitiable moments.

The large cast of minor soloists all made a fine contribution to the evening, with an outstanding tenor Luca Lombardo doing memorable double duty as “Noctambule” and “Pope of the Fools.”

André Engel was the fine director who created beautiful stage pictures through logical movements in the large scenes with the massive forces. He was equally adept at developing the complex character relationships, and addressing the ever changing dynamics between the four principals. There was nary a false move over the long evening, and the naturalistic blocking provided the loving clarity and illumination the piece needs. Only the expansive movement during the love duet on the roof seemed a but strained. While it mirrored the orchestral outpourings, it seemed a bit out of character even for two people in love who have discovered their freedom.

Conductor Patrick Davin struck just the right balance between stage and pit, and he and his orchestra seemed to revel in every detail and delight in this unjustly neglected work. If some of the atmospheric scenes amble a bit (the street people, the dress makers), it is never more so that in “Suor Angelica,” say and it is frequently more engaging and touching. In any case, Davin is a conductor to watch for. Excellent.

Paris Opera’s production makes such a strong case for “Louise” (if such proof were needed) that I would hope other companies might take note and plan a revival so their local patrons can similarly rejoice in its many pleasures.

James Sohre

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