Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

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.

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.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

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: 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.



Donna Bateman (Rusalka) [Photo by Robert Workman]
04 Nov 2008

Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera

Of their two tours per year, English Touring Opera tends to channel the majority of the budget into the Spring season, and the Autumn tour – despite a focus in recent years on some high-quality Baroque chamber works, which lend themselves well to the size of the venues around the UK which the company visits – can be rather noticeably the poor relation.

Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera

Above: Donna Bateman (Rusalka)

All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera


So Carmen and Rusalka seemed an ambitious prospect for this year's Autumn slot, without any apparent increase in resources.

One of the two, Rusalka – Dvorak's retelling of the Undine fable dealing with loss of innocence and the impossibility of survival in an alien world – reached the stage almost intact. The original orchestration is of Wagnerian proportions, and inevitably a 13-piece reduction (created for the Iford Festival by Ian Farrington) cannot create a sound-world of anything approaching the same depth, but there were few actual cuts, and the small orchestra under conductor Alex Ingram did its best to sound sumptuous and shimmering.

Director James Conway has chosen to present the opposite worlds of the water-dwellers and the humans through the medium of a real-life cultural divide – the American colonisation of Haiti in 1915. The casting reflected this, with black singers as the Water Sprite and nymphs, and white singers in the human roles. The only exception was the white Jezibaba, ostensibly a survivor of Haiti's indigenous Taino race – though I confess I wondered if this angle might have been dreamt up because ETO couldn't think of a black mezzo to cast in the role.

The general concept, though, was ingenious, successfully conveying a culture of unwitting ignorance and an irreconcilable chasm of difference between peoples, each 'side' unconsciously incapable of viewing the other as equal.

In the title role, Donna Bateman lacked legato occasionally, but her performance was full-voiced, passionate and involving, a very physical portrayal of a would-be free spirit who feels trapped and unfulfilled in her own world, but who finds that every step she takes only leads her to a new prison. As the Prince, Richard Roberts had ardour, good looks and a lyrical, evenly-produced tenor, while Fiona Kimm's Jezibaba was a tour de force.

Keel Watson was a characterful Water Sprite, his full bass caressing the melancholy falling phrases. The trio of nymphs – Angela Caesar, Abigail Kelly and Alison Crookendale – were mellifluously pleasing to the ear when singing together, with Caesar's light and attractive soprano a particular solo highlight. The Gamekeeper (Maciek O'Shea) and Turnspit (Jessica Summers) were lively and engaging in their second-act cameo, while as the Foreign Princess, Camilla Roberts was vocally powerful, full of hauteur and chillingly unpleasant in her snide insults towards Rusalka.

rusalka_092.pngMaciek O'Shea (Gamekeeper), Jessica Summers (Turnspit)

The staging and lighting were very simple, with minimal set and a backdrop consisting of a giant corrugated moon.

carmen_115.pngLeah Marian Jones (Carmen)
Far more adventurous, though maintaining the theme of cultural contrast, was La tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's short theatrical piece based on, but not a direct equivalent of, Bizet's opera. In an effort to be faithful to the spirit of Mérimée, it presents the bare bones of the story in a single act, a nightmarish sequence of flashbacks haunting the demented Don José, who at the start has Carmen's blood fresh on his hands.

Brook's version was created in 1981 and is only licensed for performance in French, which – although ETO prefers to perform as much as possible in English – director Andrew Steggall capitalises upon, staging it as a film noir. It all feels quintessentially French: the Carmen, Leah-Marian Jones, with her fair colouring and feline eyes and demeanour, comes across as a sultry French chanteuse a la Marlene Dietrich rather than a gypsy.

Marius Constant's score, freely adapted from Bizet's, makes imaginative use of orchestral colouring, using percussion to particularly evocative effect. All Carmen's own arias survive, but she sings them as introspective solo concert-pieces not addressed to anybody in particular, and Nicholas Garrett is made to croon the Toreador Song in a similarly intimate and non-operatic style. The straight 'operatic' numbers bloom like moments of unexpected beauty, and are mostly reserved for Don José (David Curry) and Micaela (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace), evoking the world of innocence from which they originate.

La tragédie is a juxtaposition of this musical beauty with raw, violent horror; in little over an hour, Don José is dragged further and further into obsession and madness, bludgeoning Carmen's gypsy husband with a bull's skull in a breathtaking piece of shadow-play. Not even Escamillo gets out of the nightmare in one piece.

carmen_160.pngMaciek O'Shea (ZUNIGA), David Curry (Don Jose)

It is the kind of piece which would normally lend itself to performance in an off-West-End studio by a cast of theatrically-trained singing actors, and it was a luxury to hear it performed by opera singers. Moreover, it was an extremely powerful drama.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):