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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.



Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.
21 Oct 2008

La Traviata at the Washington National Opera

Staging La traviata for an opera company these days is an experience akin to that of a symphony’s orchestra programming Mozart: a great idea fraught with disaster.

G. Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta Valéry (Elizabeth Futral), Alfredo Germont (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), Flora Bervoix (Margaret Thompson), Giorgio Germont (Lado Ataneli), Annina (Micaela Oeste), Gastone (Yingxi Zhang), Baron Douphol (Nathan Herfindahl), Marchese D'Obigny (Grigory Soloviov), Doctor Grenvil (Oleksandr Pushniak), Solo Dancer (Eric Rivera). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Dan Ettinger. Director: Marta Domingo.

Above: Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.


The score, with its Mozartean transparency, magnifies any musicianship misstep – a single wrong note! – tenfold. Its blend of vocal virtuosity and realistic, if maudlin, plot leaves few creative options to the director (if there are any “modern” traviatas, I’ve never met them…), and demands that the principals merge traditionally “operatic” vocalization with heavily Stanislavskian acting, so often detrimental to sound production. Yet Verdi’s 1853 war horse is a perennial favorite with audiences: the fast-paced, and despite its familiarity and our modern cynicism still heart-breaking melodrama is, above all, eminently watchable. This arresting quality of La traviata may often insulate its troupe, assuring success despite the inevitable mistakes that creep into any live performance, and even larger issues of miscasting and under-rehearsing. Sooner or later, Verdi’s vivid characters take over the most jaded critic, forcing her to set aside her quill. But the assurance of success breeds complacency: all too often, opera companies are happy to rest on Verdi’s laurels, forgetting how difficult to crack this old chestnut of his really is. When I finally caught up with the Washington National Opera’s La traviata (co-produced with the Los Angeles Opera) on October 2nd, that amnesia – whether inherent in the production or brought on by the end-of-the-run fatigue, I cannot say – was painfully in evidence.

Traviata_9_08_85.pngArturo Chacón -Cruz (foreground) as Alfredo and Lado Ataneli (background) as Giorgio Germont. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

Elizabeth Futral as Violetta has clearly learned her arias; the set pieces were technically proficient, sounded well, and deserved their applause. But in the faster-paced declamatory scenes the singer seemed distracted by the demands of the acting and had significant projection troubles. On occasion, Ms Futral appeared to be making a visible, physical effort to push the sound out, which, ironically, made her look like a consumptive patient struggling for breath. Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Alfredo had no problem being heard: he was consistently and almost annoyingly loud; to me, much more nuance was called for, but the audience loved it. The singer, however, seemed mostly in love with himself. He appeared to be having great difficulty tearing himself away from the proscenium long enough to acknowledge the love of his life stationed behind him, or any other characters with whom he was supposedly interacting. As a result, Chacón-Cruz came across as an old-fashioned “tenor” – thankfully, a dying breed among young singers these days.

Clearly, both leads had issues with staying in control of either the vocal or dramatic aspects of their roles. Conductor Dan Ettinger, for his part, was in full control and delighted in exercising it, for instance, by holding each fermata in the score for twice its usual duration. Yet his tempi were often questionable – either too slow, creating additional obstacles for the singers already struggling with projection, or too fast, as in the opening scene, in which both the chorus and the orchestra had tremendous trouble keeping up. The chorus recovered by its second appearance in Act 2 Scene 2; the orchestra, however, did not. Indeed, throughout the performance it exhibited deficiencies in pitch, rhythm, sound quality, and balance inexcusable in a professional ensemble, with the horns particularly problematic.

Traviata_9_08_1#7E05.pngElizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

The most successful aspect of the performance I witnessed was the production itself. Marta Domingo offered traditional but mostly unobjectionable staging, with the single puzzling exception of what was presumably the Spirit of Death lifting and twirling Violetta around the stage during the Act 3 carnival chorus. Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and costumes were spectacular, particularly Flora’s gorgeously crimson multi-level bordello, the sight of which made the audience break into spontaneous applause. Neither the designs nor the direction were created for WNO, however: they have been seen in LA, and are featured on the 2007 Decca DVD recording of the opera with Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón. The exception is an updated version of the not-so-little black dress that Violetta wears to Flora’s bordello party – and it is stunning! Ms Fleming clearly got cheated in the wardrobe department. As for the rest of the production, which closed on October 5th, the fact that my readers will not be able to see it for themselves may be a blessing: for the glorious visuals and the equally glorious sound, I do recommend the DVD.

Olga Haldey

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