Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.

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.



Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
15 Jun 2009

La Scala at the Movies: Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

From the La Scala series of filmed productions come two excellent DVDs, one an incisive and contemporary staging by Patrice Chereau of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and the other a rip-roaring, old-fashioned (in the best sense) performance of Donizetti's flawed but entertaining Maria Stuarda.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Matti Salminen, Will Hartmann, Gerd Grochowski, Ian Storey, Waltraud Meier, Michelle DeYoung. Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra, Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus. Daniel Barenboim, conducting.

Virgin Classics 51931599 [3DVDs]

$50.99  Click to buy

In Maria Stuarda most of the best music and arguably all of the drama takes place in the first half of Giuseppe Bardari’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play. After Maria loses her cool and defiantly slanders Queen Elizabeth, act two becomes a somber dirge as Maria’s inevitable execution grows closer. To make the evening worthwhile, that first half has to be delivered by committed, top-notch artists unafraid of bold emoting (OK, overacting). And that’s what we get here from the mature but still exciting Mariella Devia as Maria and the brilliant, courageous work of Anna Caterina Antonacci as Elizabeth.

Maria_Stuarda_AH.gifPier Luigi Pizzi’s concept follows the “modern set/traditional costumes” route of contemporary opera production. It’s an effective gambit, avoiding the delays inherent in the scene changes of most traditional productions, and yet giving the audience something familiar and appealing to look at. The fairly clever set up begins with Elizabeth’s first scene resembling a prison, suggesting the confined emotions of the bitter Queen, as the opera portrays her. But when the scene shifts to Maria Stuarda, who actually is imprisoned, we find her outside, in a lovely grove. Once Elizabeth appears on the scene, the grove descends from view and the grim backdrop of cage walls reappears. This gets the maximum impact out of the minimum of stage design.

The focus here remains on the performers, and they deliver. Made-up to make her attractive self as unattractive as possible, Anna Caterina Antonacci uses the steely edge to her voice effectively, and her tightly wound fury at Maria Stuarda’s refusal to acknowledge Elizabeth’s power and authority helps to strengthen Mariella Devia’s portrayal, which isn’t as imaginative as acting. Devia takes a while to warm up, and even late in the evening her pitch strikes your reviewer’s ears as just a bit off too often. Nonetheless, she has total command of the music’s idiom, and her technical displays are enthralling, certainly capturing the love of a besotted La Scala audience. It’s not the singer’s fault that in act two Donizetti’s score asks her a few too many times to rise to a climatic high note, to less and less effect, even though Devia delivers some good ones.

The males in this opera are satellites in the orbit of these two women, but Simone Alberghini makes his Talbot a somber but warm presence by means of his dark, steady instrument. Francesco Meli takes on the tenor role, which is dramatically inert but features some challenging music. Though not a matinee idol, Meli looks presentable enough to make a romantic interest on both women’s part understandable. His voice, while not particularly distinctive, manages the score’s challenges with admirable facility. Conductor Antonino Fogliani, a new name to your reviewer, makes a very positive impression, managing the fluid tempos and dynamic shifts that keep the score fresh.

Carlo Tagliabue’s TV direction is acceptable except for the act one finale, where frenetic editing lessens rather increases the excitement. ArtHaus Music appends a model bonus feature in the familiar form of the backstage documentary. At only 12 minutes, it captures a real sense of that frantic environment, while still including some thoughtful comments from the artists. Unfortunately, the translator of the booklet essay into English, High Keith, must have been rushed. What else could explain the fractured syntax in places? But Keith deserves no blame for the bland pronouncements on the historical figures. The last paragraph on the opera’s performing history would have been sufficient.

The booklet for Virgin Classics release of Tristan und Isolde, recorded at La Scala in December 2007, has no track listing and only minimal credits. Other than presenting some high-quality photographs - not exactly essential when accompanying DVDs - the booklet exists to share Patrice Cherau’s notes, which are alternately - sometimes even simultaneously - fascinating, dopey, insightful and banal. The various section headings give some clue as to their content: “The death drive,” “Two different people,” “Sexual desire,” “The corridor to death.” Chereau might have been better off just letting his work speak for itself, for his direction of this production, along with the magnificent conducting of the La Scala orchestra by Daniel Barenboim - make this an essential viewing experience.

Isolde and Brangäne are caught in a very masculine world, a bare platform before a stony facade that somehow manages to be both a sea vessel and the two castle locations of the latter acts. In acts one and three, the leads are never really alone. Sailors work behind the singers in act one, and in act three, the mortally wounded Tristan has a small group of his men around him, waiting for him to regain consciousness. The grim set (by Richard Peduzzi) risks the tedium of visual monotony, but Chereau’s ability to keep the stage picture fluid and energized obviates the risk. Moidele Bickel’s costumes feature almost no color, either, except for a bold red robe for Isolde in act two. Somehow, the production still deserves to be called “vivid,” for such is the heart-pounding inspiration of the performances.

Two of the stars have made their roles key parts of their repertoire. Waltraud Meier recorded her Isolde with Barenboim some years ago. She will never be the ideal Isolde vocally for many listeners, as her top narrows to a copper wire intensity, and she is often less concerned with accuracy of pitch than evocation of mood. But as a total performance, Meier’s Isolde on this night recorded here encompasses more of the role than most any other singer has captured: the rage, the mysticism, the sensuality. Towering over most of the cast (only Ian Storey’s Tristan comes close in height), Matti Salminen’s King Marke makes his late appearances in each act imposing and even threatening, both physically and vocally. This is a sad man, but with an edge of physical violence, as he manhandles those, like Melot, who have brought him face to face with a reality he did not want to see.

Supposedly Barenboim personally selected Ian Storey for this, the singer’s first go at Tristan. He certainly looks more like a Tristan than most other singers, with a handsome, silver-haired head and a tall, strong physique. Vocally he seems right at the edge of his resources almost all night, but he makes it through, and the totality of her performance is quite affecting. Made up to look older and plainer than she is, Michelle DeYoung’s Brangäne helps Meier’s Isolde to look younger and even more beautiful than she is. Their voices, however, bear a bit too much of a resemblance to each other, including a proclivity on DeYoung’s part for wiry, intonation-challenged top notes. Gerd Grochowski’s Kurwenal is a slender, wild-eyed mascot to Storey’s Isolde, with an obsessive love for his master. The voice is far from handsome but matches this characterization well.

Patrizia Carmine’s TV direction opts occasionally for some cheesy dissolve effects. Each of the acts gets its own disc, with curtain calls included, which are, understandably, quite lengthy at the end of the evening. Your reviewer appreciates the inclusion; others might wish to see a two disc-set with a lower price. The Maria Stuarda has little competition on DVD. There are many strong versions of Tristan und Isolde available, including an earlier Barenboim-led effort filmed at Bayreuth which is excellent. Anyone seriously interested in opera performance today should still want to view both of these titles.

Chris Mullins

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):