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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.



Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
06 Feb 2011

Heggie’s Dead Man Walking triumphs at HGO

The production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking currently on stage at the Houston Grand Opera is marvelously celebratory in its success.

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean: Joyce DiDonato; Joseph De Rocher: Philip Cutlip; Joseph’s mother: Frederica von Stade; Sister Rose: Measha Brueggergosman; Owen and Kitty Hart, parents of murdered girl: John Packard and Cheryl Parrish; Jade Boucher, mother of murdered boy: Susanne Mentzer. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Leonard Foglia. Sets: Michael McGarty. Costumes: Jess Goldstein. Lighting: Brian Nason. Chorus master: Richard Bado. A co-production with Opera Pacific, Cincinnati Opera, New York City Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera and Baltimore Opera.

Above: Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher

All photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera


Staged by more than a handful of American companies since its 2000 premiere at San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking has been seen in Dresden and Vienna — and in distant Australia. It is the most popular of American operas in decades — perhaps since Porgy and Bess. But that only states the obvious.

More important is the universality the HGO staging brings to the true story of Sister Helen Prejean’s encounter with death-row damned Joe De Rocher. For here the work — and the bare-bones libretto by Terrence McNally — is no longer an argument about capital punishment — if this ever was its central concern. It is now rather an essay — a careful balance of ideas and emotions — on the quest for compassion — and love — in a world poor in compassion, chilled by loneliness and loathe to grant redemption.

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted the SFO premiere of DMW and has been with it constantly. In Houston he demonstrates how much he has grown in a decade distinguished by further Heggie achievements. Indeed, the Houston staging takes DMW full circle, underscoring a network of friendships that reaches beyond the stage and contrasts warmly with the lonely despair that darkens this story.

In addition to the long collaboration between Heggie and Summers, in the pit for the Dallas premiere of the composer’s Moby Dick last season, this staging gains through the return to the cast of Frederica von Stade who — repeating her SFO role — sings Joe’s mother. Adding to the weight of her still superb singing is the fact that Heggie has long prized the mezzo as his personal Muse, together with that the tug at the heart prompted by the knowledge that the HGO performances mark her last appearance on the opera stage.

John Packard, the first Joe and now an internationally recognized baritone, is now in Houston to sing his father. Older opera buffs are delighted to find in the cast singers of note edged off stage by today’s quest for new talent.

Cheryl Parrish, loved for many performances of Despina and Gilda, and Suzanne Mentzer, only a decade ago a leading Octavian, sing supporting roles. (Both are now voice teachers in Texas.) New to the cast — and the HGO — is Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who makes Sister Rose an alter ego of Sister Helen.

At the top of this list of notables, of course, is Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen. An alumna of the HGO studio, DiDonato, now the world’s leading mezzo, has long been Houston’s “own.” Having appeared in a wide variety of roles here, she has just been named the company’s Lynn Wyatt Great Artist for 2011-12. (She will sing the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the end of the next season.) DiDonato, who sang the role at New York City Opera in 2002, is a vulnerably feminine Sister Helen without the grit of Susan Graham who created the role at the SFO. By internalizing the conflict, however, DiDonato brings new intensity to the independent nun. She makes clear that Sister Helen gets more than she bargained for in seeking to counsel Joe. DMW is, after all her opera — her story and her journey. DiDonata makes her a delicately refined woman who underscores how porous the boundary between eros and agape is.

DMW_HGO_2011_02.gifJoyce DiDonato (Sister Helen Prejean) and Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose)

Philip Cutlip is an unrelentingly macho Joe — still obsessed by sex — who makes Sister Helen’s mission doubly difficult.

Jake Heggie began his career as a composer of songs, and DMW profits greatly from his understanding of the voice and his ability to set words with transparent clarity. But, as Summers brings home, Heggie is also a master of orchestration. There are interludes in this score that rival Bergs Woyzeck in drama of hurricane force.Sixty years ago DMW would have been taught in courses on Existentialism, for the story is as complex in sins of omission as in their opposite.

And God? Despite Sister Helen’s frequent — and fervent — prayers, Heggie and McNally leave that question to the audience, free to answer it according to the degree of their belief. More significant perhaps is the experience of “King” Elvis Pressley that Joe and Sister Helen share and — recalled by both — leads to the breakthrough in their relationship.

While Dead Man Walking has grown in significance during its decade of enviably popularity, the world — in the eyes of many — has gone downhill. As chaos grows, a society largely with a moral compass and ethical rudder seems doomed to produce more and more souls equal in loss to Joe De Rocher, while the supply of Sister Helens diminishes.

This was brought home by the near-capacity audience in the Brown Theater in Houston’s impressive Wortham Center on January 29. They were totally — and actively — engaged in DMW. Indeed, one might speak of a Jungian mystique of participation, something for which art strives, but all too rarely achieves. (This was the second of five performances of the work that began on January 22.)

DMW_HGO_2011_03.gifFrederica von Stade as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher

Although Jake Heggie, born in 1961, has done significant things during the past decade, a direct line connects his two big — indeed, grand operas: Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, premiered by Dallas Opera last April. In his overwhelmingly successful capturing of the epic sweep and scope of one of the world’s major novels, Heggie makes clear that it is time to liberate him from the “post-Sondheim” category and cherish him as the equal of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov, America’s two major masters of opera. Heggie writes with a voice as original, powerful and emotionally convincing as his slightly older contemporaries. The Houston Grand Opera production of Dead Man Walking leaves no doubt about this. Indeed, the staging of this now-classic work is a well-deserved celebration of Jake Heggie’s stature and significance.

Wes Blomster

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