Recently in Performances
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
27 Feb 2011
Iphigénie en Tauride, New York
Gluck’s operas are part of a continuum, a tradition of French vocal
declamation (as opposed to the Italian school of flights of elegant,
open-throated vocal fantasy) that can be traced to him from Lully and Rameau,
and then from Gluck through certain works of Mozart and Gluck’s pupil,
Salieri to the operas of Spontini, Berlioz and Wagner.
It is not a greater or
lesser tradition than the Italian style, but it achieves different dramatic
effects, or the same effects by different means, and individual singers are
often more proficient in one than in the other. Specialists in Gluck being rare
(though he is, happily, going through one of his periodic revivals just now),
one must seek great Gluck singers in other branches of the repertory. Those
trained for Wagner, not too surprisingly, often fit well in the Gluckian glove.
Thus, back in the 1950s, Flagstad and Farrell were both superb as Gluck’s
Alceste and would probably have been exciting as his Iphigénie.
Elizabeth Bishop [Photo by Sasha Vasiljev courtesy of Barrett Vantage Artists]
With this in mind, I was intrigued to learn that Susan Graham was indisposed
on the night I attended Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met and would be
replaced by Elizabeth Bishop. I had last heard Bishop as Venus in
Tannhäuser (also a last-minute replacement) and have fond memories of
that performance: a young singer of great authority and potential in dramatic
roles. But Iphigénie is a less one-note conception than Venus; too, she is the
epitome of restraint where Venus is just the opposite.
Gluck’s Iphigénie, taken from Euripides, is a dignified priestess,
torn between her personal, humane, Greek sense of ethics and the demands of the
barbaric society in which she finds herself trapped, demands that include
performing human sacrifices. The screw turns its final gyre when two proposed
victims are her long-lost brother, Oreste, and his friend Pylade. Tension is
provided by the fact that, after fifteen years apart, the siblings do not
recognize each other and somehow never ask each other’s name.
Wouldn’t you tell a priestess your name before she cut your throat?
The situation is resolved in antique high style by the appearance of the
deity, Diane, who rescues the Greeks and abolishes human sacrifice—but
she takes her time to show up (at the end of Act IV), allowing us to comprehend
the noble natures of our legendary characters as they face their predicament.
In Gluck’s stately score dignity is the watchword, though at the Met, in
Stephen Wadsworth’s excessively busy production, Iphigénie is inclined to
hysterical fits and hallucinations. So, for that matter, is Oreste, but he has
an excuse—the Furies drove him mad for his brief fit of matricide back in
Paul Groves as Pylade and Plácido Domingo as Oreste
Bishop sang the priestess-princess with the right stately propriety and a
large, burnished mezzo, but with occasional lapses of evenness, of control,
that suggested she had not fully gauged the demands of this long role. It was
not a fully crafted performance, though a promising one; if Ms. Graham remains
under the weather (Bishop has sung at least one other evening since the one I
attended), another excursion or two should pull it all together. Plácido
Domingo, too, had a cold (and had the Met say so) but, canny codger that he is,
concealed his discomfort behind the craziness Oreste calls for. Not until
Bishop had him on his back on the altar, knife poised above, did the familiar
Domingo sound pour miraculously forth. Paul Groves, as Pylade, had much the
best night of the three leading singers, with an ardent, gleaming sound and
acting that made this two-dimensional sidekick role seem genuinely heroic. Mr.
Groves has usually been regarded as a lightweight, Mozartean tenor, but his
singing here implied that he could take on weightier assignments rewardingly:
Florestan or Samson or (in Domingo’s footsteps) light Wagner. Gordon
Hawkins sang Thoas unimpressively, Julie Boulianne was acceptable as Diane, and
I must say a word about Lei Xu and Cecelia Hall, who made a genuine and joyous
impression in the small roles of Iphigénie’s assisting priestesses. Gluck
obscures no one; his score allows everyone to shine if she or he is able to.
The Met chorus did a tidy a job and Patrick Summers brought out the many
felicities of this gracious, unusual score that sums up so much of where drama
and opera had led by 1779 and predicts so much of what was to come.
Susan Graham as Iphigénie and Gordon Hawkins as Thoas
The Wadsworth production accompanies the “Janissary” percussion
Gluck composed so that we’d know we were in a land of barbarians with
inane and frantic dancing here and there in nooks and landings and crannies of
the set to make us think wild orgies were going on next door. There are also
pointless and tiresome intrusions of the ghosts of persons sung about who have
no business being on stage, where they confuse the casual viewer and annoy the
knowing one. All these things, and Iphigénie’s hysteria could be altered
with a simple restaging. Less easy to comprehend and impossible to forgive is
the positioning of the statue of the goddess in her temple: In all the long
millennia of religious faith, this is surely the only occasion anyone has ever
offered prayers, sacrifices and hymns to the backside of a deity.
Couldn’t they turn her at least ninety degrees and have them offer
sacrifice beside her?
All that aside, it’s a good show.