Recently in Performances
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
12 Oct 2010
Promised End — English Touring Opera
In the final scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, faced with the dreadful sight of the distraught Lear cradling in his arms the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, the Earl of Kent asks: “Is this the promised end?”
His words perhaps recall the aged Lear’s earlier hope that he
might one day “Unburdened crawl towards death”. Or, as Edgar
interprets, they may evoke the more terrifying image of the Day of Judgement.
Whatever they infer, choosing Kent’s words as the title of an opera which
— its sub-plots stripped away, its minor (and some major) characters
shorn of significance — lasts less 90 minutes but which leaves the
audience longing for the eponymous conclusion, is a potentially dangerous
It’s not that Alexander Goehr’s new opera has no musical or
theatrical merits. Indeed, the first act moves briskly along and, for one
unfamiliar with its poetical predecessor, raises a few interesting ideas. But,
the second act rapidly loses focus; essentially this ‘personal
take’ on Lear has little to say or reveal.
“It’s about old men who get it wrong when they have power and
influence — and then get into a mess. That’s the reason I’m
doing this opera. […] As an incipient old man myself, that’s what
interest me about the story. I mean, I can do Romeo and Juliet now
— I’m past that stage.’”
So Goehr declared in a recent interview in The Guardian, explaining
his decision to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most complex, profound and
disturbing plays, and one which defeated even Verdi and Britten, who abandoned
long-held ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Now aged
78, Goehr professes that the impetus to tackle Lear came when, suffering from
depression upon retiring (reluctantly) from his Professorship at Cambridge
University, he happened to have a dream in which the play was ‘staged as
a Japanese Noh play’. The resulting opera mingles Noh stylizations with
Elizabethan conceits but the sum of the parts lacks substance and coherence.
One is reminded less of the successful cross-cultural integration of Noh
practices with the medieval Mystery Plays in Britten’s church parables
and rather more of the somewhat laboured device of the Male and Female Chorus
in The Rape of Lucretia. Conway’s production — in which
the chorus of principals stand (à la Brecht — another layer of
cultural reference) white-faced and stock-still, motionlessly addressing the
audience, ritually step through boxes of sand, and indulge in stylized dance
movements (for example to accompany the blinding of Gloucester) — taps
into the Noh clichés but offers little illumination.
Indeed, the shadow of Britten hangs over this opera in more ways than one.
The decision to use Shakespeare’s text verbatim recalls the approach of
Britten and Pears when constructing the libretto of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. In this case, the eminent scholar, the late Frank
Kermode, fashioned a libretto which Goehr has arranged in ’24
preludes’. But, while reducing the work to a manageable length —
excising several (essential?) aspects of the drama and focusing on the central
exchange between Lear and Gloucester — this still leaves the problem of
how to find an appropriate melodic idiom for Shakespeare’s poetry.
Goehr’s rather spiritless arioso simply does not convey the rich depths
and meanings embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the spoken play. Moreover,
the composer’s re-ordering of various episodes destroys the narrative
coherence and makes it near impossible for anyone lacking knowledge of the
original play to follow the psychological development.
The singers and players of English Touring Opera do their best. Lisa
Markeby, playing both Cordelia and the Fool — a now familiar theatrical
device — is appealing, but she is not given the opportunity to develop
and express the full extent of her inner goodness. And, while the expressive
focus of the opera is supposedly the meeting of the two foolish old men, Lear
and Gloucester, now chastened and wiser as they reflect on their short-comings,
the musical fabric fails to convey their supposed transformation. Roderick
Earle bellows and blusters as an aggressive Lear, his scenes with Nigel Robson
(Gloucester) lacking genuine emotional depth and sincerity. As Edgar, Adrian
Dwyer is convincing and impressive. Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) and Regan
(Julia Sporsen) are not musically differentiated and have little dramatic role
Ryan Wigglesworth draws clear lines and textures from his band, the Aurora
Orchestra. Goehr does create some interesting colours, not least through his
use of the chamber organ and guitar — which evoke fittingly Elizabethan
timbres — but the composite impression is one of episodic, unrelated
colourings designed to fill the gaps between scenes.
In his programme note, Goehr asks for the audience’s indulgence:
“So it remains only for me to say, that you will not be home too late and
ask that by your clapping you show some approval for what has been done
here.” This seems to me to be a patronising appeal to an audience that
may long for a less superficial musical response to a play that interrogates
essential questions of human existence.
Promised End is at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House,
London on 11, 14, 16 October and then tours until 26 November. For touring
details see www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.