Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.

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.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.



Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (Nathan Gunn) in Brief Encounter [Photo by Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
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.

André Previn: Brief Encounter

Laura Jesson: Elizabeth Futral; Alec Harvey: Nathan Gunn; Fred Jesson: Kim Josephson; Dolly Messiter: Rebekah Camm; Myrtle Bagot: Meredith Arwady; Albert Godby: Robert Orth; Dr Graves: James J. Kee; Mary Norton: Jamie Barton; Ms Rolandson: Faith Sherman; Stanley: Adam Cioffari; Beryl: Alioia Gianni. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: John Caird. Set Designs: Bunny Christie. Costumes: Bunny Christie. Lighting: Paul Pyant.

Above: Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (Nathan Gunn) in Brief Encounter [Photo by Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]


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.

Brief_Encounter02.gifLaura (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.

Paul Wooley

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):