Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Four lonely people, bound by love and fate, with inexpressible feelings that boil over in the pressure cooker of war. Àlex Ollé’s conception of Il Trovatore for Dutch National Opera hits the bull’s eye.

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance



Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
07 Jul 2009

Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was. . .

With its’ title taken from the composer’s Suite of English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, Tony Palmer’s film Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was… is a solid documentary assembled from interviews, rehearsal clips, photographs and other audio-visual materials to create a vivid portrait of the composer.

Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
A film by Tony Palmer featuring extracts from: Peter Grimes; Billy Budd; A Midsummer Night's Dream; War Requiem; Curlew River; Death in Venice; Nocturne; Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

With: Benjamin Britten; Peter Pears; Leonard Bernstein; Sviatoslav Richter; Janet Baker; Julian Bream; Heather Harper; Imogen Holst; John Shirley-Quirk; Rudolf Bing; Henry Moore; English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford.


$26.99  Click to buy

A Time There Was… is refreshingly straightforward, without artifice to alter the emphasis implicit in the documentation itself. The comments of family members are touchingly revealing. Some of the details are remarkably pithy about the environment in which Britten grew up, and Palmer is good not to editorialize. Details take shape within the context of the film. For example, Britten’s cousin Elsie’s comment about the composer’s prescience might sound out of place, but Palmer’s inclusion of it underscores some of Leonard Bernstein’s remarks about Britten’s music, and touches like these are entirely characteristic of the film.

Originally released in 1979, just three years after Britten’s death, this issue on DVD makes the film available to new audiences. (A comprehensive filmography is available at More than that, the release demonstrates the strength of Palmer’s film, which holds up well after three decades. While some of the footage in A Time There Was… has a grainy look, that quality contributes to the overall feel of Palmer’s film in bringing forward firsthand materials to document his subject. In terms of the concept and sense of the whole, A Time There Was… remains a fine, convincing portrait in film. Unlike some more recent film biographies, it lacks some of the aspects of the biopic by remaining close to the subject. The narrative is implicit in the images and pacing Palmer brings to the screen. The director is present in the presentations, not as a rear of a head asking questions in interviews or contributing a narrative to hold the images together. The images lead one to the other, and the narrative is found within the careful editing of the source material.

In addition the rehearsal clips give a sense of Britten working on his music in ways that others could not convey as effectively. In addition, the judicious selection of musical examples helps to anchor the film nicely in the sonic world Britten created. Not everyone would choose the same examples, but Palmer achieved a representative variety, which not only gives those unfamiliar with Britten’s music a useful introduction, but also serves to remind those who know the repertoire to return with renewed interest. For example, Britten’s contributions to film may not be the entire basis for his reputation, but the fact that he worked in this idiom is useful information. More than that, his efforts are not without interest, especially in the clip which Palmer used from the film The Way to the Sea.

At the same time, the treatment of the relationship between Britten and Peter Pears is sensitive and balanced. It is neither condescending nor apologetic, and that is as it should be. As appropriate as it now seems, such a balanced approach seems to be remarkable for its time, and the result stands well, decades after Palmer originally released the documentary.

While a fine body of primary and secondary materials exist in print to document Britten’s life and works, this documentary brings certain aspects of his career to life in ways that film does best. To Palmer’s credit, his films on Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Igor Stravinsky, and others have earned his praise, and the release on DVD of the present documentary about Benjamin Britten stands well with the others. A solid film when it was first issue, this newly issued DVD continues to make available an important and engaging resource on Britten.

James L. Zychowicz

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):