Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.

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.



James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase]
19 Jan 2011

James Gilchrist, Wigmore Hall

Arms swinging loosely at his side, a relaxed smile and bright eyes conveying his confident ease, James Gilchrist’s young wanderer bounded nimbly onto the stage at the Wigmore Hall, radiating and embodying the fresh optimism of spring, at the start of this technically assured and dramatically coherent performance of Schubert’s song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin.

Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday

Above: James Gilchrist [Photo by Jim Four courtesy of Hazard Chase]


But such sanguinity was almost immediately disturbed and ultimately dispelled. Although never melodramatic (there was little of the painfully intense brooding and wrought self-examination of Bostridge, Padmore or Scholl), Gilchrist and his accompanist, Anna Tilbrook, shaped the narrative effectively, subtly pointing the changes of mood: thus, shifts from hope to despair, from introspection to anger, seemed inevitable, never exaggerated, as the psychology of the drama unfolded in a controlled, naturalistic manner. The naïve enthusiasm of the opening gave way to a resigned weariness and deeply expressive poignancy at the close of the cycle; the sustained and penetrating stillness and quietude which following the final cadence, revealed that the audience, almost unconsciously swept along on the journey which began so hopefully, truly shared the protagonist’s surprise at his ultimate failure and disappointment.

Gilchrist’s light tenor and distinct diction (all well-shaped vowels and crisp consonants but never mannered) perfectly conveyed the ebullient mood of ‘Das Wandern’ (‘Journeying’). Assertive, dynamic playing by Anna Tilbrook conjured a lively brook, the precise and springy rhythms aptly conjuring the bubbling, restless water. Throughout Tilbrook took an active role in the narrative: the regularity and clarity of the whirling cycles of the mill in ‘Halt!’ and ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘When the work is done’), suggested both the literal power of the mechanism and the figurative fixedness of the forces that the young wanderer must face. Indeed, despite the happy ambience of the opening song, one might have intimated a subtle but insistent menace in the incisiveness of the brook’s tireless energy, which here positively supports the wanderer’s song but which later becomes an insistent tremor — the ‘murmuring friend’ in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the brook’) — and finally a threatening ‘roar’ (in ‘Mein’) which haunts, undermines and overcomes him.

Despite possessing a naturally light-grained voice, Gilchrist subtly used tone and colour to indicate the wanderer’s psychological journeying and wavering. Thus, the light headiness of ‘Wohin?’ (‘Where to?’) expressed his excited anticipation, while in ‘Halt’ Gilchrist adopted a more resonant timbre upon arriving at the mill. Similarly, the subdued, introspective questioning of ‘Der Neugierige’ (‘The inquisitive one’) — “tell me, brooklet, does she love me?” — gave way first to an sudden, excited outburst when he is sure of the mill girl’s love — “the maid of the mill I love is mein!”; the persistence of the repeated phrase hinted at the young man’s growing self-delusion. Replaced by a harder, more urgent tone in ‘Tränenregen’ (‘Rain of tears’), the vocal colours modulated into bitterness in ‘Die böse Farbe’ (‘The hateful colour’) . Confident and comfortable across all registers, Gilchrist was particularly controlled at the height of his tessitura, in the superbly sustained arcs of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ and in the more angry protestations of ‘Der Jäger’ (‘The Hunter’).

Rhythm and pace were handled with similar expertise; slight rallentandi at the close of songs permitted a fluent progression to the next, effectively sustaining the narrative momentum. Pauses were meticulously judged — as in ‘Der Neugierige’, where expressive dissonances and inconclusive melodic lines were skilfully crafted to convey impending meditative melancholy: “one little word is ‘yes’,/ the other is ‘no’/ by these two little words/my whole world is bounded.” In the penultimate song, ‘Der Müller und die Bach’ (‘The miller and the brook’), Gilchrist’s almost imperceptible hesitations suggested that the wanderer was lost in his own disillusion; detached from reality, he now dwells in imaginary realms and suicide is the only possible closure.

Tilbrook subtly pointed the oscillations between major and minor modes — the transition to the darker minor at the conclusion of ‘Mein!’ was stunningly affective — so that they served as an aural metaphor for the ironic contrast between the verdant beauty and freshness of the surrounding countryside and the wanderer’s growing disappointment as he recognises the falsity of the land’s promise.

Gilchrist’s musical intelligence is considerable, and this was a thoughtfully conceived and uniformly captivating whole. The paired songs, ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and ‘Die böse Farbe’, in which the rich greenery is first a ‘beloved’ and then a ‘hateful’ colour, were an emotional and expressive highpoint; astonishingly, while the voice almost disappeared in a pianissimo whisper, the words and their sentiment were presented with deep impact. But it was the touching simplicity of the final three songs which was most remarkable — and surprising, after the emotional troughs and peaks of the preceding songs. The pale, gentleness of the voice, defenceless against steady presence of the brook was extraordinary poignant: the significance of Tilbrook’s initial assertiveness was now apparent, the brook’s indifference to the wanderer’s deathly lullaby revealed.

Gilchrist and Tilbrook released a highly acclaimed recording of Die schöne Müllerin in 2009 on the Orchid label. That this audience was deeply affected by this live rendering of the wanderer’s tale, was attested by the long, resonant silence which followed the final cadence.

Claire Seymour

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):