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.



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):