Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Macbeth, LA Opera

On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.

COC’d Up Ariodante

Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.

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.

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.

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.

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.

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.



Renée Fleming as Armida [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
02 May 2010

Rossini’s Armida, New York

Armida is fabulous. That is to say, the story is a fable. Rinaldo, the very type of Christian warrior, is torn between his duty to lead the First Crusade and the sensual ecstasies offered by the beautiful sorceress Armida.

Armida: Renée Fleming; Rinaldo: Lawrence Brownlee; Goffredo: John Osborn; Eustazio: Yegishe Manucharyan; Gernando and Carlo: Barry Banks; Ubaldo: Kobie van Rensburg. Production by Mary Zimmerman. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza. Performance of April 27.

Above: Renée Fleming as Armida

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


Armida, in her turn, is torn between sincere passion for Rinaldo and lust for vengeance when he returns to his quest — as he must, since he’s one of the mythic founders of the House of Este, and his distant descendant, the Duke of Ferrara, will be the patron of the poet Torquato Tasso, who invented both Rinaldo and Armida in his epic Gerusalemme Liberata.

Love or Duty? In Rossini’s day every literate Italian knew the poem and half the leading opera composers set the story. It has reached the Met previously as Gluck’s Armide (Enrico Caruso sang Renaud) and, more recently, as Handel’s Rinaldo (in which Carol Vaness’s Armida failed to bewitch Marilyn Horne in the title role, with Samuel Ramey making his debut as Armida’s wicked uncle). This is a magical story, and any production should dazzle. Fireworks (as in the Met’s Central Park presentation of Rinaldo with Horne) are called for.

ARMIDA_Brownlee_as_Rinaldo_.gifLawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo

Rossini’s version, which only reached the Met this April, is one of the nine operas he devised as principal composer for the San Carlo in Naples, then (and now) the only opera house in the peninsula that seriously challenged La Scala for size and grandeur. Rossini was expected to write appropriate vehicles for the local prima donna, Isabella Colbran, a spectacular mezzo soprano who eventually became his wife, and for several coloratura tenors under contract at once. In consequence, all these operas are tenor-heavy, and the writing is of an elaboration until recently long out of fashion; therefore none of these operas are terribly well known but many have had successful revivals lately: Beverly Sills made her Met debut in Le Siete de Corinto and Barry Banks has appeared at the City Opera in both Ermione and La Donna del Lago. Armida features a trio for coloratura tenors — surely the first time such a thing has ever been heard at the Met — and boasts six tenor roles in all. Some of these are short enough to permit doubling up in case of illness, which happened on this occasion — Mr. Banks sang his own role in Act III while gallantly replacing a colleague in Act I.

The Met’s production of Armida is by Mary Zimmerman. If she does not take the story quite seriously, well, who could believe in Rossini as a composer of sinister enchantments? The magical elements in this score (diabolic forest, orgiastic palace, ecstatic garden, transformations, bewilderments) are more Halloween parade than Pandemonium. In fact, these elements — including the changeable enchantress and the naïve invading soldiers who flirt with the ladies and carry a magical spear — seem to belong rather to Wagner’s Parsifal. Had Wagner read Tasso? Surely — Wagner read everything, and he adored Italy. Is his desperate Kundry an incarnation of Armida as well as Herodias? It seems likely enough. But Wagner’s music has a gift for the neurotic and despairing soul that Rossini never attempts — indeed, what Italian would have dared to depict such emotions in 1817? He’d have been lucky to escape with a lynching or a year in the galleys. Parsifal is also a fable — but a dark one. Armida is epic lite.

ARMIDA_van_Rensburg_Brownle.gifKobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo, Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, and Barry Banks as Carlo

In Zimmerman’s entirely charming staging, wicked Armida’s garden of love is a nineteenth-century concert hall in which she declaims her great aria, “D’Amore al dolce impero” from an ornamental music stand, rather like a schoolmarm preaching intemperance. Her magic wand is a conductor’s baton. The enormously lengthy ballet of sinister delights is deliciously choreographed by Graciela Daniele as a send-up of an Orientalist orgy, with houris tempting Rinaldo with apples, enormous rat demons in ballet-skirted drag, and the entire Met women’s chorus in bellydance pantaloons. Richard Hudson’s set is a semicircular arena with many doorways revealing the Dome of the Rock in the first scene, a demonic forest at other times, and presiding deities (Love, Vengeance) a-spy over the top. This is the happiest, most enjoyable new production the Met has given us all year, winsome and welcome and attractive, suitable to the work, the interpretation and the audience.

The singing, alas, was not at quite so high a level, and the applause reflected this. Ovations at the conclusion were perfunctory; I did not join them. There were many thrilling moments, and it’s extraordinary that the Met or any opera house can present the work acceptably at all, but there were no individual performances to leave one dazzled and gasping — as there certainly were twenty-five years ago, when Handel’s Rinaldo reached the house.

Armida was presented in particular to suit the talents of Renée Fleming, who has sung the piece in concert with Opera Orchestra of New York. Fleming, gifted with one of the treasurable voices of her generation, has proved a controversial, often irritating, deployer of her gifts. In German, Russian and French works she seems to focus harder on giving us what the composer asks for, but in Italian roles she follows no compass but her own. Her first aria, her sortita, was typical of her recent style in bel canto: runs were casual and uneven, with no attention to individual notes, no grace, no focus on the melodic line, and diction as bad as Sutherland’s worst — but Sutherland sang the notes, with the evenness and point bel canto asks for. “D’Amore al dolce impero” found her more cautious, rhythmically and dramatically, lacking the fire of the famous Callas version of the aria and the precision and wit of Joyce Di Donato. In her duets she hewed tighter to the notes, meeting her partner (usually Lawrence Brownlee) on common ground, but when Armida’s despairs took center stage, notes seemed to come from — and be tossed out to — any old where. There was no logic to her ornaments. The style was not Rossini’s; it was Fleming’s. Admirers of the lady may be thrilled; admirers of the composer will have doubts.

ARMIDA_Manucharyan_and_Osbo.gifYeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio (center, grey jacket) and John Osborn as Goffredo (far right)

It is unfortunate that Ms. Fleming (or the management) has insisted that she sing all the many performances of Armida given this spring and also next year — I’d love to hear how the opera would work with Di Donato or Diana Damrau or Ruth Ann Swenson, all brilliant coloratura technicians who tend to honor the composer rather than their own jazzy whim.

Among the six — on this occasion five — tenors demanded by an uncut performance of Armida (and at four hours, including two intermissions, you have to suppose that most of it was here), most were very good, none were over-the-top spectacular. John Osborn (Goffredo) and Yegishe Manucharyan (Eustazio) made little impression. Kobie van Rensburg, who specializes in florid music, brought a rather gravelly sound to the soldier Ubaldo, which made a pleasing contrast to the more lyric voices of Mr. Banks (Carlo) in their duets, and with Mr. Brownlee (Rinaldo) in the notorious trio.

Barry Banks was right to take on the suddenly vacated part of Gernando in Act I — he thrives on angry coloratura (as Oreste in Ermione at the City Opera, for example), and his singing had exciting force if lacking beauty. As the very different Carlo, he produced a more sensuous tone and he is an excellent actor.

Lawrence Brownlee has become an able actor, as was not originally the case, and handled Rinaldo’s transformations convincingly — he must fight a duel with rapiers, fall convincingly in love, suffer visible torments of his divided soul, and at last throw aside his pleading lover with visible regret. His voice is well produced and gifted with luscious high notes, but he lacks the great bel canto desideratum of evenness — runs that cross the octaves seem to be produced by different voices, from different parts of his body. The effect is impressive but not graceful or stylish. His best singing — like Ms. Fleming’s — came when he sang in duet or trio with others, holding him back from awkward individual flights. Bel canto was all about individual (as well as parallel) vocal flights — but that was back when singers could be expected to do it with proper taste.

A friend objects that Armida is a second-rate opera. True. But if second-rate operas did not permit, nay encourage, first-rate singing, opera would have died out centuries ago and small loss. Some of the greatest singing ever heard has come in second-rate operas, but not on the present occasion.

Riccardo Frizza accomplished the great task of getting through the endless and witty ballet without producing tedium — rhythms that depicted marching soldiers or languishing lovers or general mayhem were individually colorful, and Ms. Daniele’s hilarious dances had the solid ground of Mr. Frizza as their launching pad. In the opera proper, number succeeded number with an impeccable musical logic and impulsion that was not always clear in the libretto, and the Met orchestra sounded as if it was having fun with Rossini’s exquisitely varied effects. (Terrific otherworldly harp moment there.) The chorus sang that way, too — especially the men, soldiers in Act I and demons at other times. The ladies sang well but might let themselves go a bit when portraying Middle Eastern dance, even if Rossini’s rhythms are not appropriate to the stuff.

John Yohalem

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):