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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.

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.



Toby Spence and Iain Paterson [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
29 Sep 2010

Faust by ENO

Perhaps because the rather stolidly Victorian character of both its music and its morality, Gounod’s Faust has been out of fashion in the UK in recent decades, and owes a debt to David McVicar and his darkly Gothic production for the Royal Opera in 2004 (now, at last, available on DVD) for the restoration of its footing in the standard repertoire.

Charles Gounod: Faust

Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson, Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius, Pamela Helen Stephen. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Des McAnuff; Set Designer: Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford; Choreographer: Kelly Devine; Video Designer: Dustin O'NeillEnglish National Opera, London Coliseum, September 2010.

Above: Toby Spence and Iain Paterson

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera


ENO has entrusted its new production to Des McAnuff, best-known in London for the musical Jersey Boys which is currently enjoying a long run at the Prince Edward Theatre. The only toe he has thus far dipped in the operatic water was a production of Wozzeck in San Diego last year — not a piece that would come automatically to mind for a novice opera director. An eclectic history, promising more than some of the guest directors engaged by ENO in the recent past. McAnuff fixes the starting point of the opera in a WW2 atomic bomb laboratory. It is easy to believe how an ageing scientist would be left feeling unfulfilled after devoting his life and career to an inherently cold-blooded and inhuman vocation.

Faust’s reversion to youth appears to take him back to the early days of WW1 — though a few obviously intentional anachronisms make the period somewhat indistinct — and initially it is a romanticised vision of jolly carousing soldiers with their girls in dirndl skirts and flouncy blouses. The love scene is idealised even further, with intense coloured lighting, and flowers appearing to spring up at will on the projected backdrop. From that point forwards the scales start to fall from Faust’s eyes and time seems to be sped up; the colour is blanched from the scene, Marguerite seems to age several years in the few months that elapse between Acts 3 and 4, and even more between then and the final scene. The perky soldiers of the Act 2 tavern scene are almost unrecognisable when they return from duty, old and bent and going crazy with shell-shock.

Faust_ENO_03.gifMelody Moore and Iain Paterson

In the title role, Toby Spence was a revelation. His attractive stage presence, clarity of delivery and impeccable diction have never been in question, but Faust is a fuller lyric role than Spence has been used to, and I feared his voice may simply be swamped by the orchestra or vanish into the further reaches of the Coliseum’s vast auditorium. But in the event, the fullness of his sound at the very beginning had me worried that he might be over-singing, and I was relieved when the sound seemed to settle down, easily big enough for the occasion but retaining his trademark bright, youthful sound, right up to a splendidly confident high C in ‘Salut, demeure’. It is not the most flexible or nuanced sound, nor does it sound French — I’m not sure it’s possible to when singing in English translation — but it was confident, romantic and hugely enjoyable.

Iain Paterson was a congenial Mephistopheles, more gentleman than devil I felt, and he’s got the stage presence for the role. Although his lowest notes lack power (he’s a bass-baritone rather than a bass) he turned in an exceptionally stylish vocal performance.

Faust_ENO_01.gifMelody Moore and Toby Spence

The American soprano Melody Moore made a disappointing first impression as Marguerite (rendered in the surtitles as Margarita, though the principals seemed to be approximating the French pronunciation); there is something invulnerable and unyielding about her vocal quality which makes her difficult to engage with, and she made hard work of the Jewel Song. She did come into her own in the final scene, where the same qualities that had earlier been frustrating made for an effectively steadfast ‘Anges purs’.

Benedict Nelson’s Valentin was secure and simply effective in ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, and Anna Grevelius’s charmingly androgynous Siebel was beautifully-sung.

Faust_ENO_04.gifIain Paterson and Pamela Helen Stephen

Ed Gardner struck the right balance with the score, neither too heavy-handed in the rhythmic numbers nor too over-indulgent in the lyrical ones. Only ‘Le veau d’or’ didn’t quite have the drive to take flight.

McAnuff’s production worked for me for the most part, though it was disappointing that he opted to cut the Walpurgisnacht ballet altogether — all that remained of the scene was an episode in which Mephistopheles shows Faust a group of tortured souls writhing round a table. If going down the historically-informed opera ballet route doesn’t appeal (and frankly, why would it?) surely the ballet is the greatest opportunity for a director and his choreographer to add to the audience’s understanding, or to crystallize their production concept in the form of a vignette?

At the end, with Marguerite redeemed and Faust dragged down by Mephistopheles through a Don Giovanni-style trapdoor, we see the elderly Faust appearing in his laboratory, collapsing after apparently having drained the cup of poison from the start of the opera. Was his whole adventure into youth and corruption, then, just the hallucination of a poisoned and dying man? The elixir of youth to which Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s deadly draught is poison of one sort or another, whether its effect be physical or moral, and either way, Faust ends up back where he started.

Ruth Elleson © 2010

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