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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.

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.



Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
31 Dec 2010

Aida at Bregenz Festival 2009

Some years ago a witty soul coined the term “jumping the shark” to identify the point at which any long-running television program had exploited all its innate story/character development possibilities and had to resort to ridiculous plot contrivances and spectacle to keep the episodes — and paychecks — coming.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida

Aida: Tatiana Serjan; Radames: Rubens Pelizzari; Amneris: Iano Tamar; Il Re: Kevin Short; Amonasro: Iain Paterson. Wiener Symphoniker. Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Directed by Graham Vick. Set and Costume Design: Paul Brown.

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For the curious, “jumping the shark” referenced an episode of Happy Days, a program that for years stayed within the confines of a small American town in the 1950s; in said episode, the characters ended up in Hollywood and one entered a contest to — yes, indeed — water-ski over an enclosure containing a shark.

If one thinks of the Bregenz Festival as a long-running hit show — and in the opera world, this lake-side venue for elaborate outdoor productions can fairly be called such — then with the 2009 Graham Vick Aida, the festival has indeed “jumped the shark.” The booklet essay (by Kenneth Chalmers) to the DVD set quotes many a laudatory blurb from various European reviews at the time of the show’s premiere. So maybe the experience on DVD can’t capture what the show is like live. As caught by cameras, Vick’s Aida is a frenetic mess — whether the action takes place in ankle-deep water, aloft in crane-elevated cages, boats, or fragmentary statuary, or on an endless flight of stairs. The success of the festival undoubtedly offers directors an ample budget, and the very nature of the lakeside venue demands big effects. But when an opera gets as hopelessly lost as Aida does here in all the pyrotechnics and staging conceits piled on the stage — and despite the authentic opportunities for spectacle in the libretto, at its heart this is a fairly intimate story of thwarted love — the “shark” has been “jumped.”

With the amazing work of set and costume designer Paul Brown, Vick presents a world with no set sense of time or place, mixing ancient and modern elements. Costumes are primarily contemporary, through with some elusive sense of logic; the priests, for example, wear papal miters. At the rear of the stage two huge blue feet, spangled with stars, have a vaguely period Egyptian look, as do other fragments apparently broken off the original monument, but the whole is clearly modeled on the Statue of Liberty. It’s a very Euro-friendly concept — America as subtext for militaristic oppression. Thus Amneris, who often wears a dress with stars spangled on it, appears at first with two leashes, at the ends of which are two prisoners with hoods over their heads. Why Amneris has been assigned Abu Ghirab prisoner-walking duty doesn’t have to be contemplated — just go with the anti-American flow. Aida is truly a slave here — not a higher-ranking attendant to the princess, as she is usually depicted. Wearing a dull jacket over a orange-red shift, she is washing the stairs with others slaves when first seen. Radames sings his opening confrontation with Amneris from yards away, and many of the key scenes have a similar distance between protagonists and antagonists, weakening the force of their interactions. In act three, when Aida is confronted by her father, he appears from the water before the stage, like the Creature from the Red Sea Lagoon. It’s all like the famous description of the staging of Meyerbeer’s operas — effects without causes.

The color scheme Vick and Brown work with may blind those sensitive to one end of the spectrum — from hot pinks to emergency beacon orange and onto purple and turquoise. The dancers spend a lot of time kicking up spray on a platform covered in about a foot of water. For act two, Amneris’s attendants manhandle some amazingly buff (and mostly Caucasian) Ethiopian prisoners in tighty-whiteys. Some viewers may be ready to escape into the tomb with Radames and Aida at the end, except there is no tomb — the condemned lovers sail off into the distance through the air, in a crane-hauled boat.

For sheer spectacle, this may well be the Aida to beat — and yes, it includes a huge elephant at one point (not a live one, but still — the cranes can’t be trusted with everything). However, for those actually interested in Aida as an opera, this set can’t be recommended. Besides the score being, as the booklet essay describes it, “trimmed,” the singers get no real chance to develop interesting characters or make their own vocal qualities known. The latter is true because they are all miked. The voices of the leads appear to be lighter than those one would normally hear in a conventional opera house, and the sound mix keeps the voices within a narrow range. As Amneris Iano Tamar looks smashing, but her lower range is too weak even for the microphones. To some extent the same is true of Iain Paterson as Amonasro, although he has enough power in the body of his voice to make a decent impression. The two leads have pleasant voices but neither Rubens Pelizzari as Radames or Tatiana Serjan as Aida give any indication of having the vocal goods to tackle these roles in a production without microphones and a sound mixer standing by. Conductor Carlo Rizzi and his orchestra are surely “miked” as well, and they whip up a fine wall of sound in the ensembles and triumphal parade.

The Blu-Ray version does make for an amazing picture on any high-end television. For viewers open to a version of this opera that places 21st century stage and camera technique over the essence of the work itself, this is not a set to be missed.

For others — consider the shark successfully jumped.

Chris Mullins

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