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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.



John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Marc Eskenazi]
13 Oct 2009

‘10 for 10’ recital gets 10 out of 10 for performance and audience

The Wigmore Hall never stands still: not content with having increased its audience by 300% over the past year, it now seeks both to reward its loyal patrons for their support in acquiring the Lease, and to bring in new audience members, with an innovative series of ten concerts where all the seats are priced at £10.

‘10 for 10’ recital gets 10 out of 10 for performance and audience

John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Above: John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Marc Eskenazi]


The artists range from the stellar to the emergent, and if Saturday night’s recital is anything to go by, the standard is as high as the ‘usual’ Wigmore evening, but with the added excitement of a much younger audience demographic. Not that I object to an audience composed mainly of oldsters (that is, the 50-100s) such as myself, but it’s good to see a majority of the audience under 40 enjoying a finely balanced, deeply serious evening.

John Mark Ainsley has pretty much made a career out of being surprising: after all, this is an English tenor who never sounds ‘English’ in that dreaded Oxbridge sense; an elegant presence who never comes across as merely that; a Lieder specialist who hardly ever follows conventional ways with a song; and an opera singer who always provides a new and different perspective on a role. I have to admit that my heart sank on seeing the Heine ‘Schwanengesang’ settings as the central works, and grumbled that I would much prefer more Schumann (‘Dichterliebe’ for preference) since Ainsley is an especially sensitive interpreter of that composer, and anyway lyric tenors ought to leave the heavy stuff alone… and so on. However, I was wrong.

Howsoever you order them, the Heine settings are a demanding test for any singer, and Ainsley sang them with his customary subtlety and style, but was also able to produce impressive fortes in ‘Der Doppelgänger’ and ‘Der Atlas,’ the exposed, raw G at bar 34 in the former not so much a howl of outrage as an impassioned plea. The eerie calm created by Malcolm Martineau’s playing in the first part of the song was echoed by Ainsley’s quite chilling phrasing of ‘auf dem selben Platz,’ and his superb diction at ‘was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid’ made the song’s atmosphere all the more hectic. ‘Am Meer’ and ‘Ihr Bild’ provided more expected pleasures with beautiful tone and naturally easy legato line, although there was no self-indulgence with either, the tone’s sweetness readily discarded for a bitter one in ‘dass ich dich verloren hab.’

The Schumann group was a model of Lieder style, ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’ sung without any archness or sentimentality, the line ‘wie ein Lavastrom, der den Aetna entquillt’ proving that it’s possible for a lyric tenor voice to create a dramatically powerful statement, and the final ‘flüstern mit Wehmut und Liebeshauch’ caressed with aching tenderness. Liszt’s settings of Heine are of course much less familiar than those of Schumann, and Ainsley and Martineau brought out their melodic invention and rich harmonies, especially in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume,’ although the Schumann version sung as an encore reminded us of that composer’s greater sensitivity to Heine’s poetry.

The second half of the concert was all French music, Poulenc’s ‘Tel jour telle nuit’ revealing Ainsley’s deep understanding of the composer’s dictum that ‘calmness alone can give intensity to a love poem’ most finely shown in ‘Nous avons fait la nuit.’ Of Gounod’s ‘Cinq Mélodies,’ the highlight was certainly ‘Au rossignol,’ mesmerizingly played and sung with the kind of rapt contemplation and perfect diction which epitomize this singer’s art.

Melanie Eskenazi

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