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.



Elisabeth Meister as Constanza [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera]
02 Nov 2010

Haydn: L’isola disabitata, London

Haydn’s L’isola disabitata is ideally suited to the modern taste for chamber opera. This is Haydn for those who think they don’t like his operas or even baroque form.

Franz Joseph Hadyn: L’isola disabitata

Constanza: Elisabeth Meister; Gernando: Steven Ebel; Silvia: Anna Devin; Enrico: Daniel Grice. Conductor: Volker Krafft. Director: Rodula Gaitanou. Designer: Jamie Vartan. Movement Director: Mandy Demetrious. Fight Director: Philip d’Orleans. Southbank Sinfonia. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 28th October 2010.

Above: Elisabeth Meister as Constanza

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera


Written in 1799, just before the three best known operas, L’isola disabitata is enjoying a major revival all of its own, thanks to the 2007 edition used at the Young Artists production in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House, London. It’s short, snappy and there are no high male voices.

ISOLA-00098-DEVIN-AS-SILVIA.gifAnna Devin as Silvia

Its beauty lies in its Spartan simplicity. This is a deserted island, after all. As with so much pre 19th century music, elaboration masks strong basic themes. L’isola disabitata is remarkably clear sighted. It’s about keeping faith, despite adversity.

Constanza (Elisabeth Meister) is a woman who has been on an isolated island for 13 years. She thinks she’s been deserted by her husband Genandro (Steven Ebel). The name “Constanza” means “constancy”, but Constanza is no passive saint like Penelope in Greek myth who kept faith with Odysseus when he wandered. Constanza gets angry, so mad that she almost becomes mad with bitterness. She passes the years by incising an inscription deeper and deeper into the surface of a rock. It’s a powerfully potent curse. Her love has turned to unrelenting hate.

When Constanza was abandoned, she held her infant sister in her arms. Silvia (Anna Devlin) is a feral child, who has grown up in isolation, knowing nothing of “civilized” society. She’s had no role model other than Constanza, so she’s been taught to fear men. While Constanza turns inward, Silvia enjoys the island, living with nature (symbolized in this production by a toy animal which also indicates her innocence).

Mysteriously, Gernando (Steven Ebel), her husband returns to the island. He hadn’t deserted Constanza of his own free will, but had been kidnapped by marauding soldiers. Recognizing the surroundings, he sets out to search for her and save her. Eventually they are reunited. Constanza destroys the curse, realizing it was wrong. Faith triumphs, against all odds.

ISOLA---00549---GRICE-(C)PE.gifDaniel Grice as Enrico

Silvia who has been taught to hate men, encounters Gernando’s companion, Enrico (Daniel Grice). At first she fears him, but they fall in love. Silvia and Enrico form a standard love interest sub plot, which enlivens the otherwise grim tale of Constanza’s suffering. But Haydn’s also commenting on the idea of society in Arcadian surroundings. He’s very much in tune with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although L’isola disabitata predicates on marital fidelity, there are deeper, less explicit political implications.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that this opera should appeal to modern audiences. Although Haydn worked for Prince Esterházy, he wasn’t subservient, as his Symphony no 45, “The Farewell” indicates. The American Revolution showed how potent Rousseau’s political concepts could be, the French Revolution signaled the end of Absolute Monarchy. Musically, too, Haydn understood the Zeitgeist. Classical poise tempered baroque opulence. The Sturm und Drang movement, which so influenced Haydn was a precursor of what we now called Romanticism, which ushered in further revolutions in the arts and society.

Although L’isola disabitata is set on an island, the island is in fact no more than a structural concept indicating a situation cut off from the reality of normal society. Haydn uses a contemporary text, by Pietro Metastasio, which refers to barren rocks and smoke — metaphors of oppression, and of Constanza’s moral confusion. Hence the layer of smoke that filled the Linbury Studio Theatre for this production by the Royal Opera House Young Artists programme, enveloping set and singers in the mist. Suddenly there’s a sound of running water. Until the conductor (Volker Krafft) climbs out of the pit, you’re not sure whether the first part of the opera is over or not. Just as Constanza’s disoriented, so are we.

A friend observed that the set “looks like a bomb site”. She’s right, for Constanza must have felt that she’d been hit by disaster. The designs (Jamie Vartan) reflect Constanza’s emotional landscape. She’s desolate, ruined, shattered. She’s lost faith because she invested in the trappings of marriage, rather than love.

ISOLA-00736-EBEL&MEISTER-(C.gifElisabeth Meister as Constanza and Gernando Steven Ebel as Gernando

The spartan designs in this production also reflect Haydn’s music. L’isola disabitata uses only four voices, each distinctly defined and characterized. Until they’re united at the end, they sing alone, reflecting the characters’ inability to link up. The orchestra’s small — nineteen strings, with only two horns, two oboes, bassoon and flute. Minimalist by 19th century standards.

Musically, it’s also “modern”, in the sense that the voice parts are direct and communicate without excess adornment. The orchestral writing follows the words intimately. Sometimes one instrument shadows a voice, delicately picking up details. It’s word painting, almost as sensitive as Lieder would become.

Elisabeth Meister and Steven Ebel excel. Both have been prominent in the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme for some time, and have been heard many times in smaller roles in the main House. Meister memorably stepped in at short notice to sing the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen. She sang with Ebel in Ebel’s The Truth about Love at the Linbury last year. He also sang Rimenes in Arne’s Atarxerxes. All these have been reviewed in Opera Today — please follow the links.

Daniel Grice’s Enrico was also good — I’d like to hear more of him. Anna Devin’s singing was rather obscured because she had to jump about so much. It’s in keeping with the idea of Silvia as a wild child unfettered by society, so director Rodula Gaitanou and movement director Mandy Demetriou are making a valid point, though overdone.

But the point of Young Artists presentations is learning through experience. There’s more to performance than technical prowess. Life skills count too. Please read “Polishing gemstones” where Simona Mihai and Kai Rüütel speak on the benefits of the Programme, one of the most highly regarded in Europe. The scheme also trains people in all aspects of opera, such as the conductor Volker Krafft, the director, designer, lighting and fighting. It’s tough being a creative artist especially in this financial climate. But if this excellent performance of Haydn L’isola disabitata is anything to go by, the Young Artists have proved themselves.

Anne Ozorio

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):