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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.

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.

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.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Sonia Ganassi as Rodelinda [Photo by Laera]
10 Aug 2010

Middle Ages Next to Come

According to Paulus Diaconus’ Historia Langobardorum, both Lombard sovereigns warring for supremacy in late 7th-century Italy — the legitimate king Perctarit and Grimuald the usurper — behaved rather fairly to each other and their families.

George Frideric Handel: Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi

Rodelinda: Sonia Ganassi; Bertarido: Franco Fagioli; Grimoaldo: Paolo Fanale; Garibaldo: Gezim Myshketa; Eduige: Marina De Liso; Unulfo: Antonio Giovannini. Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia. Rosetta Cucchi, director. Diego Fasolis, conductor. Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Italy. Performance of 2 August 2010.

Above: Sonia Ganassi as Rodelinda [Photo by Laera]


Above all, there is no evidence that they would compete for queen Rodelinda, who instead was exiled to Benevento with her little son Cunincpert and lived peacefully there until Perctarit, after finally recovering the throne, summoned her back to the kingdom’s capital Pavia.

Turning into melodrama characters those practical barbarians, more interested in power than in romance or bloody vengeance, was the endeavor of such Baroque playwrights as the French Pierre Corneille and the Florentine Antonio Salvi. The latter’s 1710 libretto for Giacomo Antonio Perti (Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi), drastically pruned by Nicola Haym for the London stage, was set to music by Handel in 1725. It immediately proved a resounding success, also thanks to a cast including soprano Francesca Cuzzoni in the title role, the legendary Senesino as Bertarido, and some of the best singers available in the side-roles: tenor Francesco Borosini, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi, and alto castrato Andrea Pacini.

7123.pngFranco Fagioli as Bertarido [Photo by Laera]

The present staging in Martina Franca, a festival traditionally claiming to “authentic” performing practice, plunged the romanticized 18th-century music drama back into the darkest Middle Ages, or into a “Middle Ages next-to-come”, as phrased by director Rosetta Cucchi. At least visually, through the combination of muddy and disheveled landscapes with costumes (by Claudia Pernigotti) featuring leather, rags, metal decorations, and heavy-duty boots. Entertaining enough, but how much “authentic” is questionable, if only one checks Senesino’s portrait as Bertarido in the flamboyant livery of a Hungarian haiduk, as painted by John Vanderbank in 1725. At the most, this is Regietheater that dare not speak its name, a compromise likely to dissatisfy modernists and authenticists alike.

The show’s musical side was far more convincing, with the Swiss conductor Diego Fasolis succeeding to elicit from the festival orchestra — equipped with modern instruments plus harpsichord, theorbo and Baroque flute — a sound that was both luscious and historically informed. Within an evenly balanced company, the Argentinean alto Franco Fagioli (Bertarido) towered for projection, agility, seamless transition between registers, unfailing musicianship. His manly color and stage charisma may set a new standard among countertenors. As Rodelinda, mezzo Sonia Ganassi tended to underact throughout and suffered some strain in the upper register. For her convenience, a couple of high pitches were transposed an octave lower, and her whole climactic aria “Ombre, piante” was set in G minor instead of the original B minor. Nevertheless, she sang with an elegant restraint hitherto unnoticed in her main repertoire, stretching from Rossini and Donizetti to Massenet.

Her sister-in-fiction Eduige (the established Baroque specialist Marina De Liso) outplayed her as to style awareness, consistently unfolding hot temperament and fanciful coloratura. On the contrary, both the villain Grimoaldo (Paolo Fanale) and the arch-villain Garibaldo (Gezim Myshketa) were absolute beginners in the field of early opera, yet delivered their fast runs and stalking utterances pretty nicely. A further pleasant surprise was the male alto Antonio Giovannini, who lent the loyal Unulfo mellow color, tasteful da capos and lots of acting stamina, particularly in the alternative E-minor version of “Sono i colpi della sorte” after the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe (HHA).

To many affectionate Handelians, the opportunity to hear this and some more passages restored to the composer’s final intentions was a novelty. Yet the claim of a “world premiere in Andrew V. Jones’ critical edition” is mere pressroom hype. The actual premiere with HHA material before official publication was in Glyndebourne 1998, followed by the Göttingen Händel-Festspiele in 2000 and sundry houses worldwide. Anyway, the new artistic manager in Martina Franca, Mr. Alberto Triola, can rightfully boast for bringing to attention a dramatic masterpiece which, despite its Italian subject, was hitherto neglected by the major opera theaters in Italy.

Carlo Vitali

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