Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Jiri Belohlavek [Photo by Clive Barda]
30 Mar 2009

Magdalena Kožená shines in Martinů’s Juliette at the Barbican, London

Many works by Martinů will be performed in this year’s commemoration of the anniversary of his death, but it would be hard to equal the impact of this performance. Much of its success was due to Kožená, whose presence illuminated the whole opera, even though her moments on stage were fleeting.

Bohuslav Martinů : Juliette

William Burden (Michel), Magdalena Kožená (Juliette), Zdeněk Plech (Old Arab/old sailor), Anna Stéphany (Little Arab/1st man/bellhop) Rosalind Plowright (Bird seller/fortune teller), Frédéric Goncalvès (Man in chapska/Father Youth/convict), Roderick Williams (Man in hat/Seller of Memories/blind beggar/nightwatchman), Jean Rigby (Fish seller/grandmother/old lady), Andreas Jäggi (Police chief/postman/clerk), BBC Singers, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra

Above: Jiri Belohlavek [Photo by Clive Barda]

 

A man arrives in a strange village where nothing seems quite right. The villagers have no memories to bind them to reality, so things unfold without sense or connection. But what is reality? The opera’s subtitle is “The Key to Dreams”, which implies a search for meaning, whether or not it can be unlocked.

From the orchestra emerges a lovely, haunting melody. The man thinks he’s heard it before, connected to a vague memory - a beautiful woman ? He’s determined to pursue the dream which seems to fade as fast as it unfolds. The woman is Juliette, shining bright and golden, “like a star in the firmament”.

Deeper the man goes, into a dark forest, where he meets a Seller of Memories, who sells photographs of exotic places. The man buys into the images, convinced that they show his past with the woman he’s searching for. Eventually the man finds himself in The Central Office of Dreams which people enter and leave when they sleep. On ferme! warns the nightwatchman (who was also the Seller of Dreams). Wake or you’re forever trapped! But Juliette is such a powerful, seductive dream that the man would rather remain in eternal limbo than lose her.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette materialized at the Barbican, London, in a new edition of the urtext, using the French version the composer wrote on his deathbed in 1959. He lived most of his creative life in France, so it’s perhaps poignant that he should return to his masterpiece in this way.

Hardly any staging was needed, for the action unfolds like a dream, utterly adrift from rules of cause and logic. Indeed, what narrative there is lurks in the music. The orchestral writing is densely vivid but at critical moments the density clears and a solo instrument takes centre stage. At first, it’s an accordion, then horn, clarinet and oboe, then a particularly evocative melody on piano which surrounds Juliette’s entries. It’s like in dreams where a single image comes into focus, like symbolic portent. Each time Juliette’s music returns, impressions deepen and become frustratingly familiar. Have we heard it before ? And where ? In dreams, the mind fixes on details and follows their trail. Martinů uses allusions from music as tantalizing clues. There’s a snippet from L’Histoire du Soldat, just before the Fortune teller scatters cards. Then, a quotation from L’Après-midi d’un Faune, evoking a mood of frustrated love and longing. Similarly, Martinů uses off stage noises and singing. Even when asleep, the mind hears what’s happening “outside” so to speak. At any moment the dreamer might be woken, the dream shattered. It’s psychologically astute, building dramatic tension into the very fabric of the music.

Jiří Bělohlávek has a specially sensitive feel for this elusive, mysterious music, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his Janaček or Dvořák. This performance was as good as the superlative Excursions of Mr Brouček last year, which he conducted with the same forces, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers. This production was also directed by Kenneth Richardson, who made such magic with the concert staging of Mr Brouček. Richardson’s intelligent, subtle style achieves great things by simple means. The forest, for example, is created by light and shadow, yet feels impressively alive.

Kožená was outstanding. Visually and vocally she glowed. While all the cast was good, she was exceptional, for Juliette is in an altogether more exalted league than ordinary mortals. Kožená’s fees might normally exceed the other singers fees put together, but here she was utterly worth it, for her presence embodied all that Juliette stands for. The role is so important that the whole opera rests on how well it is realized. Kožená has long championed Martinů’s music, so this magnificent performance was a great tribute.

William Burden sings Michel, the protagonist. It’s a long, demanding role which he carries off with aplomb. Also familiar to those who loved Mr Brouček was Zdeněk Plech, who made the relatively small role of The Old Arab/Sailor so interesting that you wished the composer had developed it further. Roderick Williams sang no less than four roles, including the pivotal Seller of Memories. He acts as well as he sings, and is certainly one of the brightest young British stars of his generation. When will he get the profile he deserves ? Andreas Jäggi’s Clerk was suitably tense and manic.

There are only two available recordings of Julietta, and the classic version is nearly 50 years old. Let’s hope this performance, which was recorded by the BBC, will make it to CD/DVD. Bělohlávek’s recording of Mr Brouček won the Gramophone award for best Opera in 2008, so perhaps this new Juliette will do the same.

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):