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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.

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.



Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
15 Mar 2011

Aida, London

Strict courtly hierarchies and the repressed formality of ritual juxtaposed with violent sexual jealousy and lurid erotic excess … a stage-world more suited to the Straussian insalubrity of Salomé than to the epic grandeur of Verdi’s Aida, perhaps?

Giuseppi Verdi: Aida

Aida: Liudmyla Monastyrska; Radamès: Roberto Alagna; Amneris: Olga Borodina; Ramfis: Vitalij Kowaljow: Amonasro: Michael Volle; King of Egypt: Brindley Sherratt; Messenger: Steven Bell; High Priestess: Madeleine Pierard. Conductor: Fabio Luisi. Director: David McVicar. Associate Director: Leah Hausman. Set Designer: Jean-Marc Puissant. Costume Designer: Moritz Junge. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday, 11th March 2011.

Above: Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House


David McVicar’s production, first seen in 2010 and here given its first revival, never wavers in its presentation of grotesque barbarism and sexual abandon — blood-thirsty gladiators run amok among nubile, naked maidens etc. — and while such goings-on may not be to everyone’s taste (indeed, some might argue that ‘taste’ doesn’t feature strongly in the proceedings), McVicar certainly injects freshness into Verdi’s old warhorse, thankfully avoiding the kitsch of cod-Egyptiana.

The first challenge for the audience is a visual one: for Jean-Marc Puissant's sets reject the beauty and exoticism of ancient Egypt in favour of dull modern industrialism: a huge wall of scaffolding, harshly illuminated by diagonal strip lights, dominates the stage. Not an elephant or sphinx in sight; but also little visual beauty to complement the tenderness of the delicate lines that open Verdi’s magical prelude. We are among a barbaric, theocratic society, one driven by human sacrifice: salacious human slaughter blesses Radamès’ departure for war, and the victims’ bloodied bodies are hoisted to form a canopy of carcasses to celebrate his return. Clearly McVicar wants to emphasise the soullessness of this brutal, compassionless community. But, at times he struggles to sustain consistency; for example, the eclectic, international selection of primitive tribal dress worn by the cast seems to have little to do with the gloomy dystopian landscape.

In the absence of a coherent mise-en-scène, it’s left to the singers themselves to provide dramatic logic and focus; and here the problems start, for the cast, while rich in musical talents, display a dearth of interest in communicating narrative or engaging emotionally with each other, preferring the stand-and-deliver approach, bellowing into the auditorium apparently impervious to the manic action occurring behind them.

There are two casts for this revival. Only one member of the original cast, Micaela Carosi, was expected to reprise her role, as the eponymous princess in the ‘Cast A’ performances; however, due to pregnancy (the official line goes …) she withdrew and was replaced at short notice by the Ukrainian soprano, Liudmyla Monastyrska. Making her house debut — she is to return in May as Lady Macbeth in Phyllida Lloyd’s production — Monastyrska revealed a powerful, opulent voice, firm and controlled in the lower register (in ‘Presago il core’, for example), and full in tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria, ‘O patria mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease, her breath control superb. At times, she made effective use of a dusky, exotic colouring, but it’s a shame that it was impossible to distinguish a single word of the text, and she didn’t quite have the confidence to risk the true pianissimos that the score demands.

AIDA-BC201103080125a-ALAGNA.gifRoberto Alagna as Radames and Priestesses

Roberto Alagna has an uneven history in the role of Radamès (audience displeasure with his ‘Celeste Aida’ led to his infamous walk-out at La Scala in 2006), and some have judged his voice too small for the part. However, here he showed that he now has the required vocal power; brimming with confidence, he never once lessened the ardour. Indeed, this was a puffed-up, machismo reading of Radamès, and again there was little in the way of what one might call acting. He opted out of the morendo on the high B at the close of ‘Celeste Aida’, choosing instead the less risky alternative of repeating the final phrase slightly less loudly. A lack of nuance diminished the poignancy of the final duet (and the bare stage suggested that McVicar had run out of ideas by the later acts), but overall there was plenty of heroic strength and earnestness, which seemed to satisfy the crowd.

As Amneris, Russian mezzo soprano Olga Borodina was similarly impressive in vocal stature, and she achieved a true Verdian colour and warmth. She shared the theatrical weaknesses of the other principals, but her stunning, burnished tone was apt compensation. Dramatic credibility was restored by Michael Volle, a resonant and commanding Amonasro whose Act 3 duet with Aida was a rare and moving moment of engagement, interaction and insight; here, Volle truly communicated the father’s appreciation and regret that his own public actions and concerns will cause his daughter to suffer such deep private pain. In the smaller roles, Vitalij Kowaljow was underwhelming as Ramfis — perhaps his voice was muffled by his ridiculously over-sized headdress? — but Brindley Sherratt, an imperious King of Egypt, was in fine voice.

AIDA-BC201103080230-BORODIN.gifOlga Borodina as Amneris and The Royal Opera Chorus

Apart from one or two places where singers and orchestra momentary came adrift, Fabio Luisi did an excellent job in the pit, whipping up the players in the climactic moments, and demonstrating a strong sense of the shape and pace of the whole.

Overall, despite its musical strengths and potentially intriguing concept, this production remains unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that McVicar is absorbed primarily by the ‘love triangle’ but does not connect the protagonists’ experience with the wider context. In contrast to the dynamic dramatic swiftness of Verdi’s other political intrigues, Aida is unwieldy and often downright static. One can’t get away from the fact that Verdi’s opera is a big, bold beast; the challenge is to both juxtapose and integrate the moments of private intimacy with the grand ceremony and pageantry of public triumphal processions and dances. McVicar gives us only one half of the show; Radamès’ commanding entry at the commencement of the Grand March, stage-enveloping train majestically trailing in his wake, is a rare and arresting moment of grandeur. More usually, the crowd scenes are under-directed — why have extra chorus members if you don’t know what to do with them, or simply aren’t interested? And there’s just too much standing about and arm waving: ironically, in striving for the shock of the new, McVicar has lapsed into the clichés of old.

Claire Seymour

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