Recently in Reviews
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments:
“I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
12 May 2009
Subtle Previn world premiere in Houston
As far as world premieres go, Houston Grand Opera is in elite company in the United States, having performed thirty-eight new works prior to opening night of André Previn’s new opera Brief Encounter.
Where the German-American composer’s oeuvre will rank among the other thirty eight remains to be seen, but its subtly gives it a shot at longevity its predecessors didn’t enjoy.
Based jointly on the Noël Coward play Still Life and the 1945 film from which the opera took its title, Brief Encounter is a simple story. Two married parents, Laura (soprano Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (baritone Nathan Gunn) run into each other in a train station. Since Laura makes a trip to the city where Alec works once a week, the pair fortuitously find each other several times and develop an infatuation that turns into an affair. Both struggle with the moral implications of their relationship, and Fred, Laura’s loving yet aloof husband (sung by bass-baritone Kim Josephson) remains ignorant to her deception. Ultimately, the couple ends the fling for their families’ sake, not for a lack of mutual desire.
As theater, Brief Encounter didn’t qualify as compelling drama. The story began in an anachronistic fashion, amid the final goodbyes after the couple ended the affair—Laura then told the story of what preceded the farewell. Yet after the two hour opera finished and the story was recounted, nothing really had happened. Part of the problem is that no one cared about their affair—the only “risk” the couple faced was their own internal strife. Once Fred sensed something different in Laura, the opera was almost over and Laura had long since decided not to continue the affair. Over the course of the performance, the lovers talked about themselves, talked about their affair, talked about their families, kissed once, and then talked some more. Despite all this talking, the characters weren’t developed—they seemed only to have relevant existences within the context of the affair. John Caird’s odd libretto didn’t help much, seeming at times more like a movie script than an operatic text: on more than one occasion Previn’s music leaned towards a deliberate, romantic sound while the lovers sang verbose, chatty lines. Caird also ended several scenes with trite, pithy emotional outbursts that watered down any real sentiments the characters expressed.
Previn’s occasionally dense instrumental orchestration firmly fits in the through-composed film score tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. The German-American composer utilized a litany of styles in this mostly tonal opera, none of which overpowered the others. The vocal line, however, was more difficult to categorize. Futral had several ariosi where she showed soaring fortissimi and dramatic pathos, yet in other sections (notably her scenes with Gunn), the vocal construction resembled very light musical theater composition. Previn’s score included much swelling in the strings with very little release, mirroring the events on stage. In the end, the orchestra served a bel canto function of supporting the singers without drowning them out or drawing attention away from their lines. It would be difficult to pinpoint any outstanding suites or excerptable arias, but in the end that may very well be how Previn sees the story. Not a lot happens in Brief Encounter, musically or dramatically. Alec and Laura are restrained, always bordering on allowing themselves to give in to their desires. A score that somehow indicated a world that contradicted their own would be confusing. Theirs is a subtle environment—a world of coming home to children and spouses with little to no excitement, just steady presences. The steady presence of Previn’s orchestration mirrors this reality throughout the opera.
Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Fred (Kim Josephson) [Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
Futral as Laura gave a splendid performance, although she pushed during some of her heavier sections. Nathan Gunn’s Alec was not seductive vocally or theatrically—he was a regular man in love with a regular woman. At times out of place in large scale works, Gunn disproved any critics by giving a smooth, clear performance that never resorted to blustering. Despite the strange vocal lines, credit should go to Previn for knowing the strengths of these two main characters. Bass-baritone Kim Josephson was a steady presence as Laura’s husband, Fred, providing a more mature voice that contrasted well with Gunn’s lighter baritone. Meredith Arwady as Myrtle Bagot showed a shockingly deep and dark contralto, almost so dark at times as to lose clarity. All cast members could have worked a little more on their English diction, though. The confusing half-American-half-English accents resulted in more than several indistinguishable phrases. Music director Patrick Summers led an appropriately restrained performance and showed much deference to Previn during the curtain calls.
The most innovation was shown by the direction and design team of John Caird (who directed in addition to writing the libretto), Bunny Christie (set/costumes), and Paul Pyant (lighting). The train station where Alec and Laura first meet served as the backdrop for the rest of the production, with elegant, seamless sets dropping in from above to create Laura’s home, a public plaza, a boathouse, and a riverbank. Extensive use of fog kept the train station theme present, and (very loud) dry ice machines created a believable river setting. Christie’s assignment was not easy—over eight scenes in the eighty minute first act alone—but his scene changes were fast, credible, and not distracting. Pre-war furniture and costumes were utilized well, inculcating the subtle lives led by the characters. Nothing stood out, but that was the point—these stories could happen to anyone, anywhere.
Brief Encounter isn’t the next great American opera. It is, above all, a subtle work that serves as a snapshot of the lives of two everyday people. The fact that it doesn’t resort to heavy drama makes it somehow more relevant, though, and Previn’s orchestration underscores this fact. Opera can be subtle, and so can the stories the art form relates. Brief Encounter gets that point across, to an overall positive effect.