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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.



Violeta Urmana [Photo by Christine Schneider]
06 Aug 2010

Prom 21 — Berlioz and Wagner

Period instruments and nineteenth-century grand opera are seldom found on the same stage — or even the same sentence — but as adventurous practitioners increasingly experiment in the repertoire of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it’s a sight and sound that will inevitably become more familiar.

Prom 21: Hector Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet — love scene; Richard

Isolde: Violeta Urmana; Tristan: Ben Heppner; King Mark: Franz-Josef Selig; Brangäne: Sarah Connolly; Melot: Timothy Robinson; Kurwenal: Henk Neven. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Simon Rattle.BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London. Prom 21 Sunday 1st August, 2010.

Above: Violeta Urmana [Photo by Christine Schneider]


And, that’s no bad thing. This concert, the first of Sir Simon Rattle’s three Prom appearances this season, offered the opportunity to hear two great romantic scores performed on contemporary instruments and if the results of the lower pitch and the full, mellow tone of the OAE were not always wholly successful in the dramatic contexts, they were certainly thought-provoking and at times illuminating.

While the decision to present classic dramas of love and death by two cultural giants, Shakespeare and Wagner, seemed a natural and sensible one, it led to a slightly unbalanced programme, with the erotic love scene of Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, forming a first half lasting only 18 minutes — even in this rather slow reading by Rattle. Berlioz’s vast structure and forces — nine double basses towered over the centre of the platform — were shaped and guided with finesse by Rattle, who was ever alert to the composer’s startling harmonic effects. However, despite the use of copies of nineteenth-century woodwind instruments (for example, the oboes played on models of German instruments c.1865, with an easy, soft lower register; the bassoons employed French instruments c.1840 for the Berlioz, switching to German post-1870 for the Wagner, the latter possessing a darker, less reedy tone which blends well with the horns and clarinets), the sharp individuality of particular instrumental lines was somewhat softened, woodwind colours blending sweetly with the whole but not always delivering their full dramatic impact.

A similar problem was apparent after the interval, in Act 2 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the harmonious whole was achieved at the expense of orchestral incisiveness. Wagner aimed for a unity of instrumental and vocal lines, with the symphonic leitmotivic texture carrying the burden of the emotional and dramatic narrative, in dialogue with declamatory and naturalistic vocal melodies; but here the wash of orchestral sound served primarily as a secure, relaxed back-drop to the singers, who were therefore pushed to the foreground. Adding the fact that this was a concert performance, with no scenery and little dramatic interaction between the soloists, this was hardly the Gesamkunstwerk of Wagner’s ideal.

That said, the concordant orchestral cushion elicited by Rattle did evoke a sense of ‘distance’, and an appropriately ethereal atmosphere, for Tristan’s and Isolde’s desire can never be fulfilled in this world and release from yearning will only be achieved through transcendence. Moreover, particular instrumental effects were not neglected, and the rich palette of the period orchestra was revealed: the off-stage horns signalling the departure of the hunting party were strident and clamorous, while eerie sul ponticello playing by the strings conveyed both the delicacy of the moment and the anxious vulnerability of the lovers. Low woodwind colours intimated the shift from the daylight world to the realms of night, from the mundane to the oblivion of the sub-conscious.

With two renowned Wagnerian specialists in the cast, expectations were high, and it was no surprise that the quality of the singing invested this performance with vigour and compelling drama. Violeta Urmana, as Isolde, had no difficulty filling the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, her powerful, impassioned soprano always secure and focused, her tone thrillingly ecstatic. Sadly, Ben Heppner’s Tristan was less assured and rather inconsistent. While there is no doubting his innate appreciation of this musical language, there were more than a few wobbles, as he struggled to project. Yet, the exquisite sound for which he is renowned can still genuinely reveal Tristan’s exaltation. Franz-Josef Selig negotiated King Mark’s long monologue with confidence and clarity, conveying both the authority and stature of the betrayed King and the pain caused by Tristan’s disloyalty. Sarah Connolly communicated Brangäne’s distress thoughtfully, with controlled phrasing and delivery. Timothy Robinson (Melot) and Henk Neven (Kurvenal) completed the accomplished cast.

Overall this was a thoughtful and refined performance. But while these two passionate romantic encounters certainly touched the heart they did not, perhaps, quite reach to the soul.

Claire Seymour

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