Recently in Reviews
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
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.
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
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
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.
(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.
Susan 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
Ruth Elleson © 2008