Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.

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.



Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Christine Rice as Giuletta (Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House)
28 Nov 2008

The Tales of Hoffmann at Covent Garden

The opening performance of the ROH’s seventh revival of John Schlesinger’s 1980 production of The Tales of Hoffmann was dedicated to the memory of Richard Hickox.

Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann

Hoffmann (Rolando Villazón); Lindorf (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Coppélius (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Dappertutto (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Miracle (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Nicklausse (Kristine Jepson); Andrès (Servant) (Graham Clark); Cochenille (Servant) (Graham Clark); Pittichinaccio (Servant) (Graham Clark); Frantz (Servant) (Graham Clark); Olympia (Ekaterina Lekhina/Vassiliki Karayanni); Giuletta (Christine Rice); Antonia (Katie Van Kooten); Spalanzani (Robin Leggate); Schlemil (Kostas Smoriginas); Crespel (Matthew Rose); Luther (Lynton Black); Hermann (Changhan Lim); Nathanael (Ji-Min Park); Voice of Antonia's Mother (Gaynor Keeble). The Royal Opera. Conductor: Anthony Pappano. Original Production: John Schlesinger. Revival Director: Christopher Cowell. Set Designs: William Dudley.

Above: Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Christine Rice as Giuletta

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House


Hickox, who died suddenly on Sunday, had conducted the 2004 revival of this opera, the production in which Rolando Villazón created a sensation in the title role and instantly became a household name.

Returning to the role, one which is a gift to such a versatile and committed character player, Villazón seemed older and wiser: more mature in his interpretation, instantly establishing his presence with the inebriate bluster of the Prologue’s Kleinzach song but equally comfortable with the nostalgic reveries of the Epilogue; and more astute in his pacing, somewhat restrained at the start but sensibly conserving his voice, relaxing and releasing a tone of warmth and ardour in the final scenes.

Hoffmann_ROH_05.pngKatie Van Kooten as Antonia
The production itself cannot be said to have made the same graceful passage to maturity. The revival director, Christopher Cowell, has retained the original Personenregie, with scarcely a fresh gesture. And, the old sets looked tired and fussy, even tawdrily camp: sumptuously extravagant and evocative of the opera’s various locations they may be, but the accumulation of superfluous detail results in a rather dated literalism — the ‘real’ gondola, the giant ‘floating’ bed and miles of vermillion velvet hammer home their points but leave little room for subtlety or imaginative nuance. Hoffmann’s original short stories combine artistry and grotesquery, sparkling glitter and dark, ponderous depths; yet this production seldom scratches beneath the surface, frequently lapsing into gratuitous, pantomimic clichés.

This was a solid rather than a stunning cast. Of the female roles, Ekaterina Lekhina as Olympia was the audience favourite although this listener found her rather underwhelming; but she was jerkily, jitteringly suggestive of a soulless automaton, and certainly conquered the vocal peaks with confidence and accuracy of intonation, although there was little sense of continuity of line as she scaled the precipices. Katie van Kooten was an impressive Antonia, her radiant upper range strong and clear, although underneath the intonation was sometimes suspect and marred by unfocused note production. Christine Rice’s Guilietta was an intelligent, dramatically convincing performance, the powerful lower register of her resonant dark mezzo delightfully sensuous, perfectly conveying the courtesan’s allure. However, at times she overpowered Villazón in their duet textures, for while his high-lying lines were delivered with cleanness and panache, he was more subdued in the lower registers. Moreover, the erotic intertwining of the intended soprano and mezzo timbres in Guilietta’s duet with Niklausse, another mezzo, were diminished. Indeed, despite Rice’s intelligent portrayal, the Venetian act was the least successful; the assorted writhing couples languorously scattered about the opulent milieu evoked little genuine sensuality, and the whole lacked dramatic tension.

In the dual role of Niklausse/Muse, Kristine Jepson’s bright, animated tone projected well. Jepson has much stage confidence and natural ease; and she established an engaging relationship with Villazón which would have benefited from more sensitive and encouraging direction.

Hoffmann_ROH_02.pngRolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Ekaterina Lekhina as Olympia

Gidon Saks was a pantomime villain and rather underpowered nemesis. While his Act 2 Dr Miracle oozed menace and malevolence, both characterisation and projection weakened in the later stages of the opera. The veteran character tenor, Graham Clark, had tremendous fun in his multiple roles as the four servants, raising many a laugh; but his grotesque shrieks and exaggerated affectations destroyed the poignancy of Hoffmann’s demise.

The minor roles were uniformly compelling: Matthew Rose was Crespel, Robin Leggate, Spalanzani, and Gaynor Keeble, the spirit of Stella’s mother. Kostas Smoriginas was a commanding Schlemil.

Antonio Pappano led the orchestra of the ROH on a competent, but rather pedestrian passage through the score, with little feeling for the delicate touch and deft subtleties of French frivolity. The orchestral playing was often heavy and sluggish, and even the renowned Barcarolle lacked shimmer and transparency. Overall, Pappano created little energy and forward momentum; and occasionally the pit-stage ensemble was insecure, particularly in the choruses.

Hoffmann_ROH_04.pngRolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Gidon Saks as Coppélius

So, this was Rolando Villazón’s evening. There have been endless musicological speculations about missing, eliminated, reconstructed and re-positioned material. Here the Venetian Act was placed second, making nonsense of Hoffmann’s progression from hope of first material, then unworldly, fulfilment to disillusionment and despair. Thus, this production relied on its Hoffmann to unite the self-contained acts and to provide continuity and credibility. While some might complain that Villazón’s acting was at times overly frenetic and hyperactive, there is no doubt that his commitment to the role is absolute: and he conveyed Hoffmann's descent from youthful naïf to alcoholic cynic with total conviction. If Villazón took a little while to warm up vocally, this is understandable given the stamina required for such sustained musical and dramatic commitment. And, in the concluding moments, the slightly guarded tone of the earlier acts blossomed into a radiating timbre of myriad colours. Just what the audience had been waiting for.

Claire Seymour

Hoffmann_ROH_06.pngA scene from The Tales of Hoffmann

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):