Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.



William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]
12 Jul 2010

Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) at Iford Manor

Something rather extraordinary happened to opera seria in 1738. The acknowledged master of that time, London’s George Frideric Handel, presented two new operas at the King’s Theatre: Faramondo and Serse.

G. F. Handel: Serse

Xerxes: William Purefoy; Arsamene: Andrew Radley; Amastre: Kristin Finnigan; Romilda: Verity Parker; Atalanta: Kristy Swift; Elviro: William Townend; Ariodate: Jonathan Brown. Orchestra: La Nuova Musica, directed/conducted by David Bates. Director: David Freeman. Designer: Louie Whitemore.

Above: William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]


They were stylistically very different and with the latter the German-born composer threw caution to the winds both musically and dramatically.

It was a bad call at the time as Serse flopped completely. The trouble was that he dared to change a tried and tested formula: the wholly serious, or tragic, seria format was infiltrated by comic or buffo elements; he mixed characters of both high and low class within the drama, and he even tinkered with the classic A-B-A da capo form of the arias. In Serse much of the vocal music is in arioso form, which drives the action forward more than the traditional, more musically complex da capo format. All this was too much for London audiences at the time and Handel lost money and soon after abandoned opera for the oratorio form. Luckily for us, today we can appreciate his innovations and revel in them — as indeed did the audience at Iford Opera in Wiltshire last Friday night.

Iford-2010_-Andrew-Radley--.gifAndrew Radley as Arsamene [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]

Once again, Iford Arts is to be congratulated for rising so magnificently above the apparent limitations of its charming venue — one could indeed argue that those very limitations of size and accessibility produce something special time and again and last night was no exception. Iford encourages young talent and in its regular offerings of Handel masterpieces in intimate surroundings it also encourages the singers to concentrate on expression and colour, as they do not need to worry about pushing their voices.

The usual convoluted Handel plot of misplaced affections, thwarted plans, ladies (and men) in disguise and the triumph of love and duty (in varying degrees) was efficiently translated into the tiny, greenery-draped colonnaded space that is the delightful Iford Cloister by director David Freeman. Although advertised as “Serse”, the opera was given in English and this “Xerxes” was a translation/edit by Andrew Jones which revived memories of the famous Hytner production of the 1980’s in its language, if not its staging. The lively score, regretfully drastically abridged, was offered in spicy miniature by the well-regarded players of La Nuova Musica directed from the harpsicord by David Bates who encouraged some really meaty, full-blooded playing from his 10 piece ensemble. In Acts I and II the cast were somewhat depressingly attired in budget-store casuals with a bit of sequin tat here and there to suggest royalty (one felt particularly for the female singers who suffered very unflattering wardrobes — surely at odds with the story?) but come Act III things improved a little. A few pyrotechnics, many tiny candles, and a clever exploding model bridge (to take King Xerxes across the Hellespont into Greece) made the most of the tiny stage area.

KristinFinnigan-_-Photo-Ral.gifKristin Finnigan [Photo by and courtesy of Ralph Ripley]

More importantly, there was much to admire vocally with some excellent singing from the young cast, many of whom are at the beginning of their careers yet showed remarkable histrionic as well as musical abilities in this most demanding of genres. There was no one outstanding performer, but we left with perhaps three strong memories: the exciting contralto voice of young Kristin Finnigan (Amastre) which promises to help revive the great tradition of this most English of voice types, the impressive comic timing and agile baritone of William Townend (Elviro) and the expressive warm-toned countertenor of Andrew Radley (Arsamene). Verity Parker impressed with some spot-on high coloratura as Romilda whilst also singing with some nice supple tone. She was contrasted effectively with Kristy Swift in the soubrette role of Atalanta who brought out the foxiness of this character with some sparkling high notes and agile phrasing. Rather unusually, this production gave the title role to a countertenor, the more experienced William Purefoy. These days, it’s more often a mezzo soprano role (although written by Handel for a soprano castrato of great renown, Caffarelli) but here at Iford the tiny stage and proximity of the audience enables the less powerful countertenor voice to take it on. Purefoy coped well enough with the high tessitura of this demanding role, if not convincing us dramatically. His was no dangerously vindictive King but rather a placid, slightly academic, royal. This was particularly so in the scenes with his stage brother Prince Arsamenes, when Radley acted for both of them. Purefoy is certainly a good singer (his “rage” aria, Crudie furie in Act III was efficiently despatched despite its huge demands on the singer) but rather miscast here.

The role of the bluff, if dim, General Ariodate was robustly taken by baritone Jonathan Brown who made much of his limited role whilst contralto Kristin Finnigan was forced to do the same. How one longed to hear more of Amastre’s music and less of her creeping around the cloister, forever listening to the plotting of others’ loves. Finnigan might just be something special in the making — directors take note.

Cutting Handel is a fact of life — unpleasant but sometimes necessary — but for this writer there were just too many “cuts too far”. So many important, and lovely, arias went unheard. Everyone comes to Iford by car (there is no evening public transport in this idyllic rural location) so why not revel in more of Handel’s sublime music and get home half an hour later? After all, another thirty minutes in this beautiful place, with music of this quality, is hardly an imposition.

© Sue Loder 2010

Serse, by G.F. Handel continues on the 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th July at Iford, near Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, U.K. More information:

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):