Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

Only one Shakespeare play has resulted in three operas that get performed today (whether internationally or primarily in one language-region). Perhaps surprisingly, the play in question is a comedy that is sometimes considered a lesser work by the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Patricia Bardon as Maurya [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera]
14 Dec 2008

Riders to the Sea — English National Opera, London Coliseum

Back in June, in my review of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Sadler’s Wells, I wrote about the valuable and unsurpassed work being done by Richard Hickox to champion the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the composer’s centenary year, a project of which this rare staging of Riders to the Sea for ENO was to be the culmination.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea
Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar

Luonnotar: Susan Gritton (soprano)
Riders to the Sea: Maurya, an old woman (Patricia Bardon); Bartley, her son (Leigh Melrose); Cathleen, her daughter (Kate Valentine); Nora, her younger daughter (Claire Booth); A woman (Madeleine Shaw); Michael (non speaking role) (Oliver Kieran-Jones). Actors: Ray Alley, Darren Everest, Simon Johns, Paul Joseph, Stephen O'Toole, Sebastian Rose. English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Fiona Shaw. Designers: Dorothy Cross, Tom Pye. Lighting designer: Jean Kalman.

Above: Patricia Bardon as Maurya

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera

 

Nobody could have anticipated that the 60-year-old conductor would suffer a fatal heart attack only four days before ENO’s opening night.

The show went on in Hickox’s memory, led by ENO’s Music Director Edward Gardner, who had the difficult task of taking on the project in such sad circumstances. And Vaughan Williams’s opera, based on a play by J.M. Synge, is a grim work by anybody’s standards. A peasant woman, Maurya, lives in a coastal hut in the Aran Islands and has had two daughters and six sons; four of the sons, along with their father and grandfather, have already had their lives claimed by the sea. The fifth is missing, believed drowned, and fate dictates it is only a matter of time before the sixth is similarly lost. In the space of forty-five minutes, both are confirmed dead.

This was an impressive opera-directorial début by the actress and theatrical director Fiona Shaw, who created an emotionally-intense dynamic within what’s left of Maurya’s family. Their house is delineated by lighting only; there are no walls, so there is never any escape from the elements. Huge, shadowy upturned boat-hulls descend from above the stage, surreal and coffin-like. Tom Pye’s wonderfully bleak, craggy set is suggestive of a place which exists outside of the progress of time; a primaeval wasteland where nothing ever changes and all human life is in thrall to the will of nature.

In her final monologue, Maurya finds her anticipated devastation supplanted by a sense of relief and comfort that her life is no longer burdened by the certain knowledge of the destiny which awaits all of her menfolk; in one sense it is a small personal victory over nature, albeit in the context of an acknowledgement of human powerlessness. Mezzo Patricia Bardon was extraordinary in this scene, imbuing the music’s lyrical lines with an radiance that contrasts vividly with the terseness of her earlier anguished dialogue.

Sopranos Kate Valentine and Claire Booth, both making their ENO débuts, portrayed Maurya’s two daughters with emotional intelligence and excellent diction. Leigh Melrose — too long absent from the stage of the Coliseum — was ideal as the angry, burdened Bartley, the last surviving son.

The opera is well under an hour in length, and rather than staging it as a double bill with another short work, it was done with a curtain-raiser — Luonnotar, Sibelius’s 15-minute monologue for solo soprano, in a simple staging against the backdrop of Dorothy Cross’s unnervingly beautiful video projections. Singing in the original Finnish, and suspended in the centre of the stage in an eerie monolith which transpired to be one of the fateful boat-hulls, Susan Gritton was wonderful as the eponymous air-spirit who becomes trapped in the sea and inadvertently gives birth to the moon and stars. It was an inspired choice of opener, introducing the relationship between the sea and the eternal themes of birth, life, death and maternal grief which Riders goes on to explore further.

Raiders_to_the_Sea_009.png(left to right) Patricia Bardon as Maurya, Leigh Melrose as Bartley and Kate Valentine as Cathleen

The production integrates the two works fully, joining them into a single piece with a specially-commissioned interlude by John Woolrich, an organic-sounding progression of abstract chords. Not only does the pregnant Luonnotar open the performance — she closes it too, re-emerging onto the stage outside Maurya’s empty home, seemingly ready to give birth once more and perpetuate the cycle of motherhood.

Raiders_to_the_Sea_001.pngSusan Gritton as Luonnotar

The orchestral playing was powerful, lyrical and atmospheric in what is mostly very subtle and understated music; the standard was a fitting tribute to the late Hickox. It was a superb performance by a fine cast in an excellent production — but it was never going to be a cheerful experience.

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):