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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.



Magdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as  Pelléas [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
31 Dec 2010

Pelléas et Mélisande, New York

Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s impressionist drama closely based on Maeterlinck’s eerie, symbolist play, is not a terribly vocal opera; it calls more for the subtlety of art song style than the belting of great divas and divos.

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Mélisande: Magdalena Koženà; Geneviève: Felicity Palmer; Pelléas: Stéphane Degout; Golaud: Gerald Finley; Yniold: Neel Ram Nagarajan; Arkel: Willard White. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Simon Rattle. Performance of December 20.

Above: Magdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as Pelléas

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera


Therefore it makes me a bit uneasy to report that the latest Met revival features the best all-around cast the company has fielded (theatered?) all season, nearly flawless from top to bottom, no one vocally out of her or his league, everyone suited to the scale of the work and to singing it at the Met—at least when Simon Rattle is in the pit, keeping the evening in flawless balance.

PELLEAS_Finley_Kozena_White_7077c.pngMagdalena Kožená as Mélisande, Gerald Finley as Golaud and Willard White as Arkel

Jonathan Miller’s production removes Maeterlinck’s tragedy from the mystical, pre-Raphaelite mists in which the playwright set it to a definite location: an English country house in the Merchant-Ivory style. Miller’s feeling seems to be that we have forgotten the once-upon-a kingdoms of fairy tale, that we nowadays have similar half-sensual half- memories related to the forgotten refinements and restraints of the turn of the century world. This does not always fail of its proper effect, though killing with broadswords seems a little strange. I do not quite understand why Mélisande, first discovered in a Jungian wood far from the rest of the action, weeping into a forest pool, is already within the walls of the house. Surely her tragedy, in part, is that she begins and remains an outsider? For Miller, evidently, “Allemond,” the name of Arkel’s kingdom, is truly all-the-world, and just as there is no place to flee, there is no outside for Mélisande to have come from.

The singers, an extraordinary ensemble, perform with sensitivity and grace. Every sound they make is musically grateful and lulls one into the texture of Debussy’s tone poem. Stéphane Degout’s ardent Pelléas is nicely contrasted with Gerald Finley’s agonized and menacing Golaud. Willard White and Felicity Palmer give moving performances as the helpless elders Arkel and Geneviève. Neel Ram Narajan’s boy soprano reaches all the notes with perfect support and has no trouble filling the house. He is often called upon to “witness” the actions of the incomprehensible adults, and he acts bravely. (In one clever Miller touch, Yniold’s scene with the Shepherd becomes a nightmare, sing in bed.)

PELLEAS_Kozena_and_Degout_0804a.pngMagdalena Koženà as Mélisande and Stéphane Degout as Pelléas

The one member of the cast who did not seem quite acclimatized with the rest, perhaps appropriately, was Lady Rattle, Magdalena Koženà, who sang Mélisande, that quintessential outsider. It was easy to put her accented French down to the character’s foreignness; this did not bother me at all. More awkward was her air of conscious coquetry, of flirting with Pélleas, of manipulating those about her. This is not appropriate to Mélisande whose innocence is precisely the keynote of her character. Koženà stares, as required, at the actions of others, but her stare does not seem to imply wonder or puzzle; simply a languid lack of interest. Innocence is a commodity that Maeterlinck’s admirers longed for, missing their pre-Freudian, pre-Darwinian youth perhaps; if we can no longer believe in it, we still must have a Mélisande who incarnates it to perform the opera properly.

The hero of the evening, shining despite the brilliance of so extraordinary a group of singers, was conductor Sir Simon Rattle in his Met debut. His Pelléas et Mélisande was of so measured a pace that the moments of rising tension, imminent violence, came upon us with an almost shocking suddenness and, as the stage action remained calm, tied us more closely to the internal states that the score tends to paint in any case. His sureness and lightness of touch permitted the singers to project conversationally without any strain or push. He brought us to our feet.

John Yohalem

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