Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987production 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

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.



Wozzeck by Jan Lenica, 1928- 2001
11 Oct 2009

Wozzeck in designer khaki : Salonen and Keenlyside in London

In the opera house, stagings can impress by gorgeous sets and costumes. But in semi-staged performances, there's no where to hide behind. Semi-staging tests whether a director understands the music and what its dramatic soul might be. In dramaturgy, less is more.

Alban Berg : Wozzeck

Wozzeck: Simon Keenlyside, Marie : Katarina Dalayman, The Captain : Peter Hoare, Andres : Robert Murray, The Doctor : Hans-Peter Scheidegger, Drum Major: Hubert Francis, Margret : Anna Burford, Apprentices : David Soar and Leigh Melrose, Idiot: Ben Johnson, Soldier: Peter Wilman, Marie's child : Louis Watkins,Philharmnia Voices, Aidan Oliver, chorusmaster, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Jean-Baptiste Barrière, director. Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 8th October 2009.


Alban Berg’s music is so visual that Wozzeck could lend itself extremely well to semi-staging, so this performance, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank might have been a chance to see something truly innovative. Most of the action in this opera happens in the minds of the protagonists. So much is said in musical imagery that a concert performance can be inherently dramatic even without props. Berg builds patterns and mazes into his music, and the solo parts in the orchestra act as roles within a symphony of sound.

Unfortunately this performance turned out to be a lost opportunity. It was the final concert in an ambitious series titled “Vienna: City of Dreams 1900-1930”. Ostensibly, the concerts were part of a wider panorama presenting the music in the context of Vienna at a time of unprecedented developments, in music, literature, philosophy,art and psychology. Perhaps the message had to be blunted because the music of the Second Viennese School doesn’t promise box office success. So perhaps it was too much to expect a production that referenced the innovations in theater design that were part of Vienna’s significance. Musically, though, performances have been extremely strong. Esa-Pekka Salonen has proved his worth as head of the Philharmonia. He and this orchestra, arguably London’s finest, are an excellent match. Their performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in February was exceptionally good and fortunately was recorded. The CD is now available.

Wozzeck demands great orchestral forces, so visual impact is already built into a semi-staged performance. A sensitive production could even have made capital of the situation, focusing on what happens in the orchestra,. Even the fact that there’s barely a yard between music and and singers is no disadvantage: Wozzeck is about tight corners and entrapment.

In this performance, there was a huge screen behind the orchestra on which were projected many visual images - oil on water transparencies, montages, close-ups of the singers. This could have worked very well in theory, because Berg was interested in cinema, and his music lends itself to expression in film. In practice however, what happened on screen was busy rather than focused, distracting from rather than reinforcing the inherent drama in the music.

In opera, singers are singing “about” something. Context matters. Just as orchestral musicians need a conductor, singers need direction. Katarina Dalayman has sung Marie so often that we know what she’s capable of when truly inspired. Here she sang well, but wasn’t challenged to show her acting skills, which are usually considerable.

This was Simon Keenlyside’s debut as Wozzeck, eagerly awaited by his many admirers. Although he’s a light rather than dark baritone, at the higher registers he can catch the tension in the part, which subtly connects to the shrill tenor parts around him, and contrasts well with the bass Doctor, sung by Hans-Peter Scheidegger. Keenlyside’s forte, though, is his naturally elegant bearing. He looks aristocratic, whatever he does, even his stubble looked expensively manicured. This was a Wozzeck in designer khaki. This could well have worked, because the opera isn’t about outward appearances. With suitable direction, Keenlyside could have created character wearing a tuxedo. Wozzeck’s world is surreal, after all. Perhaps Keenlyside’s talents will be put to better use in future, more complete productions.

With semi-staging, detail counts even more than in full production. So why did Marie’s child appear in the final scene dressed in beautifully pressed, emerald green silk pajamas? We don’t know what the child’s future might be, but the indications aren’t hopeful. “Ringel, ringel Rosenkranz” sing the taunting children, and the words “Hopp, Hopp” indicate a repetitive child’s game . Berg’s fascination with circular forms and patterns would also imply the child might well end up like Wozzeck. If emerald green silk means anything, it should have been supported by other images and from the music. I also didn’t understand why the children walk on dressed in funereal black, like a cortege, Marie’s son following behind. It isn’t necessarily wrong but without substantiation it doesn’t add to the drama or to the meaning of the opera.

This is the dilemma of all stage direction faces. Visual images are open to all kinds of interpretation. They operate on many levels at the same time, and can be seen in different ways. That’s why stage direction is controversial, there’s never only one way of seeing things. Visual literacy is a skill, too, but perhaps we’ve been conditioned to TV and movies for so long, it’s a lost art. That’s why semi-staged performances are important because they concentrate the mind on the essentials of dramatic meaning. This production, directed by Jean-Baptiste Barrière seemed like grand opera manqué rather than focused concentration on the fundamentals in the drama. But getting the basics right is the key to all good direction.

Anne Ozorio

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):