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.



Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
10 Nov 2009

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at ENO

This grueling production of Bartok’s operatic masterpiece, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, clearly did not set out to retain any of the ambiguity and mystery of the fairytale which inspired it.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard: Clive Bayley; Judith: Michaela Martens. Director: Daniel Kramer. Conductor: Edward Gardner. English National Opera, Coliseum, London. Friday 6th November 2009.

Double bill with Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan.

Above: Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]


Perhaps it’s a question of the difference between terror and horror? Should you aim to make your audience feel the evil, to imagine the chilling frisson of fear or pain; or should you force evermore gory excesses straight down their throats until they’re practically choking with nausea? Director Daniel Kramer clearly believed that unless shock followed blow followed repulsion, we might miss the point of this production … which was, presumably, to show that we live in gothic times, to paraphrase Angela Carter, whose own fabulous take on the myth, the short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, is enriched by an ironic subversion entirely absent here.

What lies behind Bluebeard’s seven closed doors is a mystery, albeit one cloaked in disquieting rumour and dread. But the only moment of mystery and wonder in this production occurred in the opening filme noire ‘preface’: a single street lamp cast a mournful tinge of illumination on a solitary door, an invitation to venture into the unknown, into one’s own psychological darkness. (But, why omit Bartok’s prologue?) Clever use of a revolve whirled a passionate, eager Judith and her unpredictable new husband to the subterranean depths of his black, brooding mansion. Once there, all was revealed: this was a reconstruction of the ‘Amstetten House of Horror’, Josef Fritzl’s ghastly ‘playground’, a place of claustrophobic confinement, sexual cruelty, incestuous rape. And, if we were still in any doubt, the appearance of the family von Trapp, perfectly graded by height and representing Bluebeard’s ‘dominions’, sealed our understanding. It would be unfair to suggest that Kramer believes sexual perversion and pedophilia are peculiarly Austrian problems — Fred West and Jack the Ripper also insinuated their way into the picture — but you get the idea …

‘Bluebeard’, like so many ‘moral tales’, reveals the fatal effects of female curiosity. Here, Judith, performed by American mezzo soprano Michaela Martens, certainly began in Eve-like fashion, clutching passionately at the cold, forbidding Bluebeard. Martens was reliable and convincing, both musically and dramatically, and sang with a directness most fitting for Bartok’s folk-inspired style. Sadly, her articulation of the text was less particular. By contrast, every word of Clive Bayley’s expertly shaped and powerfully projected phrases rang true and clear. This was a wonderful performance; at times Chaplinesque in his self-delusions, elsewhere hinting at a rueful acceptance of his pathological isolation (which revealed the singer’s, if not the director’s, appreciation of the central aspect of the role), Bayley was transformed from unwilling husband to exultant dictator, as the doors which Judith insists on opening divulge the extent of his tyranny and power.

There was, however, little visual magic as the hidden recesses of this twilight world were disclosed; indeed, the whole revelation threatened to grind to a halt, when a stuttering sliding panel shuddered and jolted, requiring a helping hand from Bayley in order to expose a garden of graves. Blood dripped from the walls, Bluebeard raced gleefully about on an appropriately phallic miniature cannon, but it was left to the musical fabric to evoke an aura of ghastly awe and wonder as the ‘glories’ of Bluebeard’s sunken treasuries and torture chambers are laid before us. This was a scintillating reading by Edward Gardner of Bartok’s violent, graphic score — it told us all we needed to know about the psychological landscape before us. Expertly paced, the climaxes were judged to perfection; the blazing nobility of the off-stage brass conjured the dazzling majesty of Bluebeard’s territorial claims, even as the ‘Julie Andrews line-up’ punctured the effect. One could shut one’s eyes and appreciate all the nuances of human behaviour captured by Bartok, from cruelty to joy, from love to loneliness, a palette which was reduced by Kramer to sadism and sensationalism.

Despite these strong vocal and orchestral performances, the accumulation of visual excess eventually became tiresome; no wonder there was a stunned silence after the final tableau — Bluebeard, thrusting a gleaming phallic sword between the splayed legs of three prostrate prostitutes. Bluebeard’s crimes should gnaw at our own fears — that’s the point of Perrault’s seventeenth-century tale, to warn us of the consequences of indulging our darkest urges. But most people don’t imprison their children in sunless dungeons, or maim and murder for sexual gratification, and rather than a sense of unease and restlessness, this production simply left a nasty taste.

Claire Seymour

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):