Recently in Reviews
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’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
15 Mar 2009
Don Giovanni — Victorian Opera
Each Australia state maintains its own opera company. The dominant company is Opera Australia, a permanent ensemble based at the Sydney Opera House but which originated in the Melbourne based National Theatre Opera Company in the 1940s.
Headed by the Melba protégée soprano Gertrude Johnson the company
grew in stature and by the 1950s featured expatriate singers such as Marjorie
Lawrence (whose centenary passed on 17 February this year) as Amneris in
Aida and another Melba protégée John Brownlee as Don Giovanni. The
company gave joint seasons in Sydney with the National Opera of New South
Wales. The Sydney company recruited many of the singers from Johnson’s
company and, in 1956 as part of the larger Australian Elizabethan Theatre
Trust founded what is now Opera Australia. As a national company a
requirement of Opera Australia’s funding is that it tour but performances
outside of Sydney are almost exclusively to Melbourne for seasons between
April and June and November and December each year.
Meanwhile companies established in other sates during the 1960s and in
1976 the Victoria State Opera formed and seasons by both companies continued
until 1996 when financial difficulties caused the Victorian company to be
absorbed by the national company and cease to exist. A decade later Victorian
Opera was founded under the artistic direction of former Opera Australia
staff conductor Richard Gill. Productions are modest to look at and use
emerging singers but the musical preparation is scrupulous and the singers
perform the roles rather than learn them as rarely-performing covers as
trainees in a larger company would do.
French director Jean Pierre Mignon has long been resident in Australia
where he established a theatre company that produced, among other things,
Molière’s version of the Don Juan legend. Mignon’s production of the
opera is reminiscent of Molière’s farce and the intimacy of the production
allows for subtle comedy more than usual in the opera. The Don himself
(Samuel Dundas), dressed in a gleaming white costume, the reverse of his true
colours, is an arrogant and conceited young pup (that so young-looking a Don
has notched up so many conquests beggars’ belief). Although his voice is
still young and light toned, he uses it with great skill, projecting the text
in very good Italian and giving it shape and nuance. He has a good grasp of
the Don’s mercurial character too, physically handsome he also conveys the
swaggering, aristocratic arrogance and, above all, the snake-eyed charm. With
only two modest arias Don Giovanni’s persona lives through music involving
other characters. Dundas savors these moments and is even more impressive in
the recititative passages, making them carry the bulk of his
characterization. An example is the brief scene with Zerlina (Michelle
Buscemi) before their duet “La ci darem la mano” where he seems to taste
the honey of his own words. Only the softest parts of the music, the opening
phrase of “La ci darem” and the mandolin serenade need the elusive
Samuel Dundas (Don Giovanni) and Andrew Collis (Leporello) [Photo by Jeff Busby/Victorian Opera]
Zerlina’s music suits Buscemi’s silvery voice and she conveys
Zerlina's gentle eroticism, ecstatically sighing the words “toccami qua”
in ‘Vedrai, carino’ with same understanding as Dundas conveying
Giovanni’s lust. Tiffany Speight sings regularly with Opera Australia and
has established herself in the lighter Mozart roles. A splendid Zerlina she
steps up to the dominant female character Donna Elvira. Speights’s radiant
soprano easily encompassed the music including the often-difficult lower
passages in the epilogue and elsewhere. She is a very subtle comedienne too,
doomed by her unshakable obsession with the faithless Don her Elvira flusters
like a frustrated schoolmistress. The Prague version of the opera was
performed (eliminating Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Elvira’s
“Mi tradi”) which is a pity as Speight would have crowned a spectacular
performance had she been allowed “Mi Tradi”. As Don Giovanni’s sidekick
Andrew Collis is another more experienced singer who creates an oily
Leporello, the director relating him back to the character, Sganarelle, in
Molière’s play. His ‘catalogue’ aria bubbles with vulgarity and just a
hint of admiration for his master’s virility. With no sign of stage nerves,
Dundas is a natural clown too and with Speight and Collis made the serenading
scene in act two hilarious without undermining the beauty of the music.
Donna Anna’s music presented a challenge to Caroline Wenborne but she
managed the difficult fioritura without any compromises. The fearful drama in
"Or sai chi l'onore" was less evident but again her performance was musically
intelligent. James Egglestone was equally adept at Don Ottavio's 'Il mio
tesoro'. Pity his “Dalla su pace” was omitted as it would have suited his
well supported and focused tenor voice. The vocal preparation of all of the
soloists was obviously thorough and the intimate scale allowed for some
dramatic details that would never work in a larger theatre. The Don, for
example, gives Zerlina a flower which drops suggestively from her hand at the
end of “La ci darem la mano” and is retrieved and re-used, like the Don's
come-on lines, until it ends up planted in Elvira's hopeful cleavage.
Richard Roberts’s set is a marvel of economy, transforming from back
streets to a Moorish palace and sinister tomb. Steeply raked and angled it
suggested the endless corners Don Giovanni backs into and escapes from.
Performed in the old National Theatre (named after Johnson’s enterprise and
where a portrait of her, knife raised, as the Queen of the Night fearlessly
protects what remains of her legacy) which seats 500 has the intimacy to put
Mozart’s masterpiece under a microscope. With a small chorus it was played
and sung without perhaps the greatest refinement but with undoubted
professionalism and a constant feeling for the excitement of the story and
3, 5, 7, 10, 12 & 14 March, followed by a metropolitan and regional
Victorian tour between 28 March and 25 April 2009