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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.

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“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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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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.

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.



Hanan Alattar as Leïla [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
09 Jun 2010

Pearl Fishers, ENO

The opening tableau of Penny Woolcock’s new production depicts deep waters with rays of sun hitting the surface; in the murky blue depths, three harnessed acrobats glide down to the sea bed and back up again.

Georges Bizet: Pearl Fishers

Zurga: Quinn Kelsey; Nadir: Alfie Boe; Leïla: Hanan Alattar; Nourabad: Freddie Tong. Orchestra and chorus of the English National Opera. Conductor: Rory Macdonald. Director: Penny Woolcock. Set designer: Dick Bird. Costume designer: Kevin Pollard. Lighting designer: Jennifer Schriever. Choreographer: Andrew Dawson. English National Opera, London Coliseum, June 2010

Above: Hanan Alattar as Leïla

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera


A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a new Tosca which looked suspiciously like Tristan und Isolde — now, we have a new Pearl Fishers which, if I hadn’t been able to hear the music as the curtain went up, I would have taken to be the opening of Das Rheingold. The series of major triads towards the end of Bizet’s prelude has never before struck me as sounding like Wagner, and I dare say it never will again — but its presence, coupled with the stage picture, makes for a disorientating few seconds of opera.

It is a stunning piece of visual theatre, making effective use of the vast dimensions of the Coliseum’s proscenium arch to emphasise the insignificance of humankind in comparison with the might of the sea. The precariousness of the pearl-fishing community’s existence is further underlined by designer Dick Bird’s Act 1 set — a shanty town on stilts, with little rickety wooden huts piled on top of one another up the hillside (small wonder that the announcement of a rapidly spreading fire causes such instant panic) — and by the fiercely billowing ocean waves which surround Leïla’s Act 2 sanctuary.

Woolcock’s production attempts to strip away most of the kitsch traditionally seen in 19th-century operas by European composers about the exotic East. Instead she gives us a hyper-realistic contemporary setting, in which shacks have rudimentary TV aerials rigged up on the roof, the locals wear an eclectic mix of Western and traditional Ceylonese clothing, and Western tourists with cameras are occasionally seen weaving through the dense crowd of locals. She doesn’t go quite so far as to replicate the litter-strewn shallows depicted in one of the photographs in the programme, but one suspects it is probably a good job this staging does not contain an olfactory element (it would surely be far less fragrant than Philip Prowse’s old production, last revived in 2000, with its heady scent of incense)!

The Act 1 set does, at least, look breathtakingly pretty when night falls and lights twinkle from the hillside huts, but the designs do create a few dramatic problems — the huts in the foreground are arrayed stage left and right, separated by a water-channel centre stage, so when Nadir and Zurga sing their duet from opposite sides of the divide, they are barely close enough to one another to be credible in greeting each other as old friends (what was that I said earlier about resemblance to Wagner?). And in Act 2, if Nadir has supposedly braved hell and high water to reach Leïla in her refuge, it’s amazing how Nourabad manages to get the whole chorus up there from another direction in five seconds flat.

Boe_Alattar.pngAlfie Boe as Nadir and Hanan Alattar as Leïla

The visual inspiration vanishes after Act 2, unfortunately, with Zurga’s aria and scene with Leïla set in front of what looks very much like a Bedouin tent, and the flames of the final inferno are a mere glow in the early morning sky, or at least they were from where I was sitting.

Though the staging grew steadily weaker throughout the opera, the musical quality went the other way. I was disappointed during Act 1 that tenor Alfie Boe, a popular star destined to ensure buoyant ticket sales, didn’t have the facility for a soft, floated ‘Je crois entendre encore’ in the mould of Vanzo or Kraus or even some of his own quite recent predecessors at the Coliseum. Bizet is the king of the high, piano tenor trick (think of the end of the Flower Song in Carmen) and when sung as written it is simply magical. This wasn’t. Similarly, the Leila, Hanan Alattar, started off the evening with a bright but frustratingly unyielding tone which bulldozed any notion that this young priestess might have been employed for her ability to seduce the gods into granting safety and protection to the pearl fishers.

One cast member was consistent — the Zurga, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey. He has a pleasant, even tone with complete security throughout the role’s considerable vocal range, coupled with a mature and centred stage persona. He is not one of nature’s great movers, but I barely minded as he was so expressive in his Act 3 aria. Perhaps even more importantly, he seemed to bring the best out in Alattar, whose previously monochromatic soprano finally began to show variation in colour and tone, and whose top turned out to be really very beautiful.

Tong_Kelsey.pngQuinn Kelsey as Zurga and Freddie Tong as Nourabad

The chorus sang powerfully and with impressive diction (though I sometimes wished I hadn’t been able to hear quite so much of Martin Fitzpatrick’s translation) and Rory Macdonald’s handling of the score was thrusting and powerfully driven during the big chorus scenes, if a little short on delicacy for intimate moments such as Leïla’s aria.

If not a complete triumph, owing to musical frustrations in the opera’s early scenes and scenic frustrations in its later ones, this new production is more than worth seeing for the high points alone.

Ruth Elleson, June 2010

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