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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.



Léon Bakst: The Firebird (1910)
07 Sep 2008

Prom 68 — Russian Fairy Tales from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky

Kashchey is a gnarled old ogre who imprisons a beautiful young princess in his gloomy underworld. It’s classic psychodrama. Kashchey has supernatural powers, so how can the Princess be saved ?

Prom 68 — Rimsky-Korsakov Kashchey the Immortal; Stravinsky The Firebird

Vyacheslav Voynarovsky (Kashchey), Tatiana Monogarova (Princess), Pavel Baransky (Ivan Korolevich), Elena Manistina (Kashcheyevna), Mikhail Petrenko (Storm Knight). BBC Singers. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski (cond.)
5 September 2008, London Albert Hall, London.


This Prom paired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey The Immortal with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, contrasting two resolutions to the fairy tale that’s captured Russian imaginations for centuries.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s short opera focuses on relationships. Kashchey is immortal, but he has a daughter, Kashcheyevna, who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold and conniving as he is but she falls in love with the Prince. The Storm Knight brings all four of them together, and the Princess’s love triumphs. Kashcheyevna weeps, and her tears break the spell that makes Kashchey invincible. Love conquers all, yet again. It’s simple but affords opportunities for lushly Romantic musical effects. Music as pictorial as this illustrates so well that meaning can be visualised even if you don’t speak Russian. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight is defined by wild ostinatos, even though he’s more of a plot device than a character. Some of the most interesting music, though, surrounds Kashcheyevna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry, or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathise. While the other roles verge on stereotype, Kashcheyevna is more complex, and Manistina impressed.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written a mere four years after Kashchey The Immortal, inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. The ballet evolves from the music rather than the other way round. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal, as an orchestral masterpiece. Vladimir Jurowski is still only in his mid 30’s but has established a reputation for intelligence and sensitivity. Watching him conduct this piece was instructive : he moves with the grace off someone who understands how this music connects to dance. His gestures were understated, yet elegant, his left hand fluttering to restrain the sweep of the strings and keep the tone transparent. This pinpointed how Stravinky wrote cues for physical movement into the music itself. Circular woodwind figures translate into shapes of curved arms, flurries of pizzicato into rapid en pointe. Dancers must hear levels in this music closed to the rest of us, but Jurowski’s intuitive approach helps us appreciate its depths.

The Firebird is a magical figure which materialises out of the air, leading te Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Jurowski gets great refinement from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he’s forged a very close relationship in only a year of being their Chief Conductor. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. The rest of the orchestra plays barely above the point of audibility, until the flute enters carrying the horn’s melody. Later there’s more magic, when the double basses and cellos are plucked quietly, building up towards the crescendos which sound for all the world like the joyous tolling of great bells. In the finale, trombones and trumpets hail the moment of liberation. The trumpeters stand upright, so their music soars above the orchestra, projected into the auditorium with superb, dramatic effect.

Anne Ozorio

Viktor_Vasnetsov_Kashchey_t.pngKashchey the Immortal by Viktor Vasnetsov

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