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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.
“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!”
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.
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.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
16 Nov 2008
Lucrezia Borgia at the Washington National Opera
After a somewhat shaky start to the season, as my recently posted review of La traviata attests, Washington National Opera has added considerable luster to its roster this November with the infusion of spectacle and star power in two new productions.
My subject today is the
first of these, Donizetti’s perpetually underperformed 1833 masterpiece
Lucrezia Borgia. The next installment, to appear in a few days, will
comment on the second – Bizet’s perennial favorite, the 1875
Lucrezia is a fiendishly difficult work for all involved.
Spectacular settings of Renaissance Venice and Ferrara require the expensive
kind of luxury in staging – luxury without ostentation. The director
must create a sympathetic figure out of a legendary mass murderess, whose
grit Donizetti evidently admired enough to make her a soprano, a victim, a
mother, and a girl with a heart – most of the time… Meanwhile,
the lead singer has to survive the endless bel canto lines and the
head-spinning coloratura of her dramatic role written for a lyrical voice,
all the while staying “in character” – and a character that
psychologically is barely comprehensible to most of us. This was a tall
order, and the result was worth the price of admission, which at the
Washington National is always memorable in and of itself.
Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini.
A major ingredient in the production’s success was the fact that it
was a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, with both stage direction and visual
design in the excellent hands of the admirable John Pascoe. The stunning
visuals, a fusion of old-world luxury with edgy and abstract modern lines,
were sophisticated yet not overbearing. Central to the design were gigantic
stone walls, first parting in welcome to the carnival atmosphere of Venice,
the endless party town, then closing ominously to lock the characters and the
audience in. Together with the fabulous lighting, a persistently excellent
WNO feature (designer Jeff Bruckerhoff), these sets enhanced the complex
psychological drama woven by Mr Pascoe the stage director. His reading of the
libretto explained (if not entirely justified) Lucrezia’s bloodthirsty
nature and reputation for promiscuity by casting her as a victim of incest
and sexual abuse – an interpretation for which there is a valid
historical precedent, as well as some veiled hints in the Donizetti score.
Just to top it off, the historical heroine’s fictional son, Gennaro, is
torn between an oedipal passion for his mother and a homoerotic one for his
best friend Orsini – it is almost hard to believe Lucrezia has
not yet joined The Tudors as a prime-time show on Cinemax!
Renée Fleming was billed as the star attraction of the show, and so she
was. The singer’s famously buttery voice was on full display, even in
Donizetti’s inhumane coloratura passages, which not only seemed easy,
but were – a rare treat indeed – musical. Ms Fleming’s
formidable acting skills served her best through the sections of the drama in
which Lucrezia comes across as a sympathetic victim, fighting desperately for
survival and the remaining shreds of her feminine dignity. It was harder to
appear sympathetic in her Act 3 Scene 2 entrance, clad in male warrior attire
(an unfortunate costume choice, in my opinion) and rejoicing in having just
poisoned a group of admittedly foolish but basically harmless young men.
Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini, Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia
Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro had an easier task. His character’s
sexual ambiguity is defined situationally, in relation to others throughout
the opera, while Gennaro himself essentially remains unchanged – a
young, passionate, straightforward (if not totally straight) macho warrior.
Mostly what is required to strike the right tenor here is, forgive the
obvious pun, the right tenor. Mr Grigolo is in a possession of a fantastic
one: sonorous, yet crisp and metallic, a highly appropriate timbre for
Donizetti’s character. Despite his youth, the singer was a worthy
partner to Ms Fleming. Then again, he started performing professionally at
age thirteen, and his first solo gig was at the Sistine Chapel – not
your average résumé!
Vittorio Grigolo was not the only young singer in the cast. He was
partnered with mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the travesti role of
Maffio Orsini. One of the least experienced members of the ensemble, Miss
Aldrich did an admirable job, which under normal circumstances would have
garnered her well-deserved accolades. However, she was cursed by proximity.
She simply could not quite hold her own in this all-star production and came
across, undeservedly perhaps, as only adequate. On the other hand, the
performance of the most venerable member of the line-up, the legendary
Verdian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi, demonstrated both the advantages and
pitfalls of experience. The 67-year-old singer appeared in a role with a
significantly lower tessitura than those he performed in his early years. The
part was shorn of most of its coloratura in an effort to accommodate the lack
of flexibility in the voice, particularly conspicuous against Ms
Fleming’s nonchalant virtuosity. Yet, unencumbered by the customary
technical fireworks, Mr Raimondi was free to unleash his impressive dramatic
talent, arguably more important than vocal prowess in the role of villainous
Duke Alfonso. It was an honor to watch the old master at work.
Another master, Raimondi’s old partner Placido Domingo, was also
involved in the production as the conductor of the performance.
Unfortunately, on that front I have few laurel wreaths to award. Just as
visual spectacle has consistently been one of the strongest elements of
WNO’s productions, the company’s orchestra is almost always the
weakest link. Donizetti’s score for Lucrezia Borgia is quite
difficult for its time and genre; it contains, for instance, an unusual
amount of brass writing, both in the pit and off-stage. Mr Domingo did a good
job as a conductor, and the orchestra sounded better than the last time I
heard it (in La traviata), but that is a very low bar to hurdle. In
comparison with the level of artistry displayed by the singers and the
director-designer in this production, the orchestral performance was barely
passable, and I wish Mr Domingo, as the artistic director as well as
conductor of the Washington National Opera could do something to improve a
situation that surely cannot satisfy him. Other than that, Lucrezia
is a world-class production, and the company is to be congratulated on its