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.



Gerald Finley as J Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Brindley Sherratt as Edward Teller [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
05 Mar 2009

Dr Atomic lands on London with a bang

To say that Dr Atomic landed in London with a bang is shocking, but the subject it deals with is meant to be disturbing. Unlike the scientists at Los Alamos, we can’t live in denial of the wider implications. This isn’t history. It’s a universal dilemma, utterly relevant today.

John Adams: Dr Atomic

Brindley Sherratt (Edward Teller), Gerald Finlay (J Robert Oppenheimer), Thomas Glenn (Robert Wilson), Sasha Cooke (Kitty), Jonathan Viera (General Leslie Groves), Roderick Earle (Frank Hubbard), Lee David Bowen (Captain Nolan), Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita), Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Orchestra, Lawrence Renes (conductor), Penny Woolcock (director).

Above: Gerald Finley as J Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Glenn as Robert Wilson, Brindley Sherratt as Edward Teller [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]


On the surface, there’s little overt action. Oppenheimer and his colleagues stand about talking, but therein lies the drama. But remember Waiting for Godot. The angst is existential, directed inwards. There is no overt commentary in the libretto, either. Instead, texts are taken from documents and letters of the time, presenting evidence without explicit judgement, for there are no easy answers. The words hang in limbo, like the photograph of the wall in Hiroshima standing amid the rubble, a mute witness to horror.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic, tinged with paranoia. If the action drags at first, it recreates the tedium and tension at Los Alamos, which is central to the drama. How do scientists, men of reason, get caught up in barbarity? Oppenheimer himself was an educated, civilized man who was later persecuted for his political beliefs. The scientists on the Manhattan project didn’t know the full consequences of what they were doing and were in denial. Audiences at Dr Atomic have images of Hiroshima and the Cold War seared into their memories and cannot escape.

The lyrical episodes Adams builds into the opera are essential to the whole meaning of the opera. Oppenheimer quotes Donne, Baudelaire and other poetry. It’s an escape to a more ideal world, but he’s deeply conflicted. The song “Batter my heart” is Ground Zero in this opera, utterly pivotal and beautifully written. Gerald Finley sings it with conviction, and doesn’t flinch from its irony. “Reason….me should defend, but is captived, and proves weak or untrue”. It’s so powerful that it would obliterate anything that followed. We leave the first act stunned, to ponder it in the interval.

Perhaps the secret to this opera is not to expect action from the words, but from the music. Orchestrally, this is surprising rich and beautiful, the choruses in particularly well supported. The ENO chorus and orchestra have performed Adams before, most recently Nixon in China but this isn’t traditional repertoire, so they deserve credit for achieving such good results. Lawrence Renes conducted the European premiere of the original staging at Der Nederlandse Opera in 2007. Experience shows.

This production, by Penny Woolcock, who directed the Death of Klinghoffer film, makes much of the Teva Pueblo. Just as the scientists do the bidding of politicians, the Pueblo serve the scientists. But they observe, they are the conscience of nature. The production starts with a wall of photographs showing the scientists formally posing, as if for mug shots. Later, they are replaced by Pueblo, standing in the cavities of the wall, as if in a massive canyon. They sing from the Bhagavad-gita, prophecying doom. “Your shape stupendous”, they repeat, to booming percussion, “All the worlds are fear struck”.

Special mention should be made of Meredith Arwady’s dark contralto, seething suppressed passion. Pasqualita is a small part, but essential. Kitty is too distressed to mother her baby, but Pasqualita nurtures.

doctor_atomic_017.gifFull Stage [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]

The final scene is overwhelming. The orchestra builds up to a harrowing climax, rolling thunder as it the skies were rent asunder. As the cast stare upward, transfixed, the bomb explodes. The whole auditorium is bathed in unearthly yellow light. This is what “awesome” really means - it is magnificent as theatre. But lest we be too impressed, the voice of a Japanese woman cries out for water. All that power, all that knowledge, was to be channelled for destruction.

Superb singing from Gerald Finley who has made Oppenheimer his speciality, and also for Brindley Sherratt who was impressive recently as Pimen in Boris Gudonov. Sasha Cooke characterises the brittle Kitty well. The whole cast is strong but chorus and orchestra ground the production with firm purpose. The whole cast is strong but chorus and orchestra ground the production with firm purpose. The ENO has long had a reputation for choosing innovative and challenging work : this Dr Atomic epitomises what the ENO stands for.

Anne Ozorio

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):