Recently in Performances
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to
explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs
that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and
theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican,
London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony
Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating
a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens
or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me
I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
30 Jul 2008
The Pilgrim's Progress at Sader's Wells
The Philharmonia Orchestra has made a far more comprehensive effort than any other British ensemble to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with concerts taking place over the course of seven months in London, Leicester and Bedford including a complete symphony cycle.
The centrepiece of this season, entitled 'Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering
Pilgrim' were two semi-staged performances of the composer's Bunyan opera
'The Pilgrim's Progress' at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, dedicated to the
memory of the composer's wife Ursula who died last year. Conductor Richard
Hickox has a real passion for English music, particularly opera, and it was
heartening to see him championing such a rarely-performed stage work.
Devised as a depiction of a generic spiritual journey towards
enlightenment rather than a specifically Christian one (the composer was an
agnostic), the opera (or rather, as it's labelled, the 'morality') is
nonetheless rooted in Biblical texts and Christian hymn-tunes. In fact it is
reminiscent of Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' in its tableaux of the
progression of a soul through trials and tests to its ultimate goal, and thus
seems closer to oratorio or cantata than opera, with elements of the pageant
and the mystery-play thrown in. In David Edwards' simple semi-staging,
movement was kept to a minimum, with most of the more abstract characters
moving in a slow, flowing manner as if the motion could be stopped at any
moment to create a freeze-frame of an 'event' in the Pilgrim's travels. On
the one hand, it is a shame that a full staging was not on offer; on the
other, it is a naturally static piece and thus well-suited to this kind of
The ostensible narrator is John Bunyan, sung here by baritone Neal Davies:
though he only in fact appears to frame the piece with a Prologue and
Epilogue, it gives the impression that we are seeing everything through his
own eyes and imagination. The staging had him discovered onstage as if
asleep, ready for his opening line, 'So I awoke, and behold it was a
The cast was made up of a distinguished inventory of mainly British vocal
talent, including most of Hickox's regular collaborators, led by Roderick
Williams as the eponymous Pilgrim, and even extending to Hickox's son Adam as
the (poorly amplified) Woodcutter's Boy. There were some welcome additions
from guest artists in multiple roles, especially the menacing Gidon Saks as
Lord Hate-Good (a disembodied voice over a speaker system from offstage). The
single scene of sardonic comic relief was delivered with aplomb by Richard
Coxon and Andrea Baker as Mr and Madam By-Ends.
Williams's central performance was remarkable; something about his stage
persona is both innocent and timeless, and his singing was always assured
– despite all the obstacles in his path, the Pilgrim never outwardly
falters. His unfailingly beautiful singing was especially impressive in the
role's emotional heart – the monologue based around a passage from
Psalm 22, when the Pilgrim is in prison expecting death. Part-soliloquy,
part-prayer, it is the only time we ever see the turmoil within the Pilgrim's
soul before he realises that his means of escape has been within reach all
Hickox's conducting had a majesty and beauty which made as persuasive a
case for the score as it is ever likely to get, while Philharmonia Voices
– the orchestra's ad-hoc professional choral outfit – managed to
go from being properly lively and vociferous (in the Vanity Fair scene) to
radiantly angelic (in the heavenly passages).
Ruth Elleson © 2008