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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.

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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.

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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).

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English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

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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.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave
06 Apr 2009

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

In the parlance of a Hollywood film pitch, Britten's penultimate opera might be described as "War Requiem" meets "Turn of the Screw."

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

Peter Coleman-Wright - Owen Wingrave; Alan Opie - Spencer Coyle; James Gilchrist - Lechmere; Elizabeth Connell - Miss Wingrave; Janice Watson - Mrs Coyle; Sarah Fox - Mrs Julian; Pamela Helen Stephen - Kate; Robin Leggate - General Sir Philip Wingrave, Narrator. Tiffin Boys Choir. City of London Sinfonia. Richard Hickox, conducting.

CHAN 10473(2) [2CDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

An adaptation by Myfawny Piper of a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave relates the story of a young pacifist in a family of soldiers who tries to prove his bravery by spending the night in a room in the ancestral home supposedly haunted by two ghosts. In the morning he is discovered dead.

If that sounds like rather thin material for a full-length opera, it is. In two acts that run about 110 minutes, Owen Wingrave manages to feel much longer. Didactic and portentous, the libretto’s flat characters declare their positions in tedious, protracted arguments, only to reach a climax that strives for an eerie ambiguity but just feels unclear and unmotivated. The excellent booklet essay by Anthony Burton explains that similar criticism was made of Adams’s short story. Burton goes on to conclude that the opera is a “major personal statement” for Britten, which is all good and fine, but that doesn’t make it an artistic success. The score undoubtedly is “close-knit,” as Burton describes it, as it uses a few motifs over and over. Your reviewer cannot agree with Burton, however, that Britten’s music is “imaginative,” as it all sounds like music he had written, to greater effect, for other pieces. Besides the titles mentioned in the opening line of this review, strong echoes can also be heard of the Britten masterpiece Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

However, any work by a major composer such as Benjamin Britten deserves a hearing, and this Chandos recording, one of the last conducted by the late Richard Hickox, brings together excellent singers to give the work a fighting chance - no pun intended - at winning converts. Peter Coleman-Wright wrestles with his conscience in the title role, employing a smooth, well-modulated baritone. In the thankless roles of Owen’s belligerent family, Alan Opie and Elizabeth Connell try their best to fill out their one-dimensional characters. Janice Watson and James Gilchrist also make fine contributions.

The Chandos sound has its fans and detractors. For your reviewer, the aural picture boasts remarkable clarity, but that comes at the cost of being set at a very low-level, even for a classical release. For anyone with somewhat weak hearing, that necessitates a high level of output. Louder sections then blast out painfully, and if somehow one forgets to adjust the setting for the next music one listens to, sudden deafness is a real possibility.

For the most committed admirers of Britten’s music, this CD captures a fine performance. For anyone else with the slightest interest in the material, a fairly recent film production with Gerald Finley at least gives the viewer of Owen Wingrave some visual stimulation to make the 110 minutes pass a little less “pacifically.”

Chris Mullins

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