Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

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.



Ludwig van Beethoven
30 Aug 2009

Fidelio at the Proms

Fidelio is not just any opera. But then, Beethoven is not just any composer. His only opera — unless one counts Leonore as a work in itself — confounds bureaucratic expectations.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio

Leonore: Waltraud Meier; Florestan: Simon O”Neill; Don Pizarro: Gred Grochowski; Rocco: Sir John Tomlinson; Marzelline: Adriana Kučerová; Jacquino: Stephan Rügamer; Don Fernando: Viktor Rud; First Prisoner: Andrew Murgatroyd; Second Prisoner: Edward Price; BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir (chorus master: Tim Murray). West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), concert performance at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 2009.


The unimaginative and the plain uncomprehending are led to decry it and sometimes, quite staggeringly, to account it a dramatic failure. Even Wagner, who should have known better, could be dismissive, for instance telling Cosima that a German theatre would be better off opening with Weber’s Euryanthe — admittedly, a wonderful work, but certainly a problematical one — “rather than with Fidelio, which is much more conventional and cold.” Conventional? Hardly, given the boldness of substituting for the operatic expectations of conventional “characterisation” the instantiation of an unutterably noble idea, “freedom”, itself liberated from the confines of bourgeois expectations. Wagner either could not see, or did not want to see — the latter, I suspect, more likely — that the “rescue opera” was here both transcended and granted its enduring memorial. Cold? This work veritably blazes with heat, and it certainly did on this occasion, “occasion” being truly the operative word. Still worse, we read Cosima a few years later record, again contrasting the work with Richard’s beloved Euryanthe: “Then we start discussing Fidelio, which R. describes as unworthy of the composer of the symphonies, in spite of splendid individual passages.” Suffice it to say, however, that there were here many “splendid individual passages,” yet Fidelio was found not only to be worthy of the composer, but to speak directly of and to that all-too-real modern-day catastrophe to which the very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bears witness.

So much for what one might call the meta-performance, but what of the performance itself? Daniel Barenboim has rightly chided those who speak only of the context to this orchestra and not of its musical accomplishments. One cannot and should not forget the former, but the greatness of the enterprise shows in the extraordinary artistic results; disentangling the two is a fool’s game, and never more so than in a work such as this. I am delighted therefore to report that the expectations built up from the previous night’s two Proms (see here and here) were more than fulfilled. Indeed, the orchestral playing had a greater edge than it had during the first half of the first of those concerts. The strings once again demonstrated a depth that would be the envy of many a professional orchestra — at least it would, were the absurd authenticist fashion not to decry such tone. Occasionally the woodwind might have proved fallible, but so what? One does not expect Klemperer’s Philharmonia, astonishing in a different way. This work is about humanity, warts and all: just, in fact, what Beethoven is about. There were in any case ample compensations in the Harmoniemusik blend. The timpanist, a star from the previous night, once again shone brightly. The brass was often magnificent, nowhere more so than in those treacherous horn parts in Leonore’s first-act aria. They were not outshone by Waltraud Meier, which is saying something. And then, of course, there was that trumpet call. The thoughts and associations that rushed through one’s mind at that point were myriad, but I can certainly report that it brought tears to my eyes.

Barenboim’s direction was vigorous, unfailingly engaged, attentive to singers and orchestra, without ever letting concerns for the possible detract from the necessity of the utopian. Some of the overture — unwisely, I thought, Leonore III — was impetuous rather than climactic in a Furtwänglerian sense. (The performance these musicians gave of the overture “as itself” in Salzburg two years ago was manifestly superior.) But his remained a signal achievement, not least in terms of orchestral training, discipline, and of course inspiration. The other cavil I should register is with the version of the score employed. Messing about with Fidelio seems to be all the rage at the moment. The Paris Opéra recently commissioned new dialogue and re-ordered the opening sequence, beginning moreover with Leonore I. Barenboim did something similar, in eschewing almost all of the dialogue — is it really that bad? — and putting Marzelline’s aria before her duet with Jaquino (without, moreover, the tonal justification for this put forward by Sylvain Cambreling in Paris). But then, I realise that I was speaking above about confounding of expectations, so perhaps I am just lacking in imagination myself. There was, in any case, a reason for replacement of the dialogue, since it was replaced by Edward Said’s English narration for Leonore. On this of all occasions, to do so was quite understandable and it certainly provides a genuinely interesting and in some respects disquieting perspective upon the work. Hearing Leonore recount what had taken place from a chronological distance, and with clear implications that her hopes had since been dashed or at least significantly tempered, warns us against any move towards easy non-solutions. Don Fernando could never have put everything right.

Waltraud Meier, mostly recorded but also partly live, presented the narration vividly, in delightfully accented English. However, it was her vocal-dramatic performance that stole the show. She is of course a true stage animal; this shone through in her facial expressions, her gestures, as well as her voice. Yet, even though this was a concert performance, her performance was certainly not out of place. She actually brought us into the most important theatre of all, that of the imagination. And her account of “Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung” was simply spellbinding. Simon O”Neill was an excellent Florestan. He could not efface memories of Jonas Kaufmann in that Paris performance last December, but to have hoped for that would have been entirely unreasonable. O”Neill proved himself fully capable of the testing demands of this cruel role and even brought the odd hint, if only a hint, of Jon Vickers to his timbre and projection. Gerd Grochowski was a late replacement for Peter Mattei as Pizarro. I have recently heard him both in Berlin and London as Telramund, and this performance was rather similar, evincing commendable attention to musical and verbal text, but remaining underpowered. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan, sorry, Rocco. Tomlinson’s voice might be showing its age on occasion, but this is as nothing compared to the dramatic truth and commitment he shows. It was, however, somewhat unfortunate that Rocco should from the outset be so much more powerful a presence than Pizarro. Evil might or might not be banal, but we need to believe in the very real power this wicked man wields. The other parts were decently taken, Adriana Kučerová showing to good effect a beautiful voice, of which I should be more than happy to hear more. And it would be unforgivable not to mention the truly outstanding singing from the combined forces of the BBC Singers and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Every note, every word, was audible, but just as immediate was the dramatic effect, whether of imprisonment, of hope, or of jubilation. The legendary Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus for Klemperer is the gold standard here, but these musicians, if not so great in number — or at least that is how it sounds — have little to fear from such a comparison.

Wagner was doubtless right to prefer the Ninth Symphony for the laying of the foundation stone at Bayreuth. Yet the Ring, the sometime artwork of the future, is not the only nineteenth-century work that speaks immediately to our present condition. Fidelio does too (which is not, of course, to say that many other works do not). And so, still more so, does a performance of Fidelio such as this. Barenboim seems to me both right and wrong to say that when this orchestra comes together, politics disappear, since everyone must concentrate exclusively upon the music. For that coming together in the service of something far greater is unavoidably political. It shames those who create division and worse; it holds up an alternative. Such, after all, was the original intention of Barenboim and Said. To the orchestra, mere congratulations upon a tenth anniversary few, least of all its founders, could ever have anticipated, seem pitifully inadequate. And to Blair, Bush, Olmert, Ahmedinejad, Mugabe, Putin, et al., one wants, indeed needs, to say once again, with Horace, “Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur” (“Change but the name, and the tale is told of you”). Even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that present-day tyrants and war criminals will be brought to justice, we must hope — and hope that at least some of their victims will be rescued. Beethoven and these inspirational young musicians help us do that. “Komm, Hoffnung...”

Mark Berry

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):