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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.



Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]
16 Mar 2011

Magnificent Mahler by Shanghai Symphony

It was, of course, only a coincidence, but a week of ideal spring weather — no rain and low humidity — found Shanghai in a perfect mood for an all-Mahler program by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on March 12.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 1 in D major (the “Titan”); Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Shui Lan, conductor. Yang Jie, alto. Shanghai Orchestra Hall, March 12, 2011.

Above: Shui Lan [Photo courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra]


The bird calls of the First Symphony were unhackneyed, and those who recalled Mahler’s early programmatic references in the work to the awakening of spring — to fruits and flowers — found themselves in a magic garden for a program that combined the Wayfarer Songs and the four-movement version of the First Symphony. Even had it been performed in a Midwestern blizzard, however, this was Mahler that made one sit up and listen — and be grateful for a moving musical experience.

The Shanghai Symphony, which dates back to a municipal band in the 1870s, is today the outstanding orchestra of Eastern Asia. Under Music Director Long Yu it has toured Europe and the US and has even been heard at the movies on the sound track of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although it must be said that the SSO does not have the refined and mellow sound of many Western ensembles — the silvered strings and burnished brass, it has something of greater importance: the dedication of its instrumentalists and their full emotional involvement in what they are doing.

Guest conductor for Mahler was Chinese-born Lan Shui, currently music director of the Singapore Symphony and — since 1907 — chief conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic. Given the conductor’s adolescent mien, it is difficult to believe him old enough to have once been tutored by Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. In the States he has held positions with orchestras in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Lan Shui is elegant and unmannered and he knows his Mahler as if by instinct. His reading of the First Symphony was analytic, but never academic. He sensed in the score a narrative impulse, but knew how wrong it would be to make that into a romp through field and forest. And outstanding was his “feel” for the irony that gives the First that “there’s-more-here-than-meets-the-ear” sensation. He deliciously caught the tongue-in-cheekedness of the hoarse bass that leads to “Brother Martin” in the third movement, thus making clear that this is funereal music of quite a different color from that heard in the Fifth Symphony.

For even the still-youthful First can grow lugubrious in the hands of a conductor with no understanding of the many levels of the score. Thus it was no surprise when Lan Shui brought the horn section — bells up-turned — to its feet in the brass blast that concludes the First. This was exuberant Mahler.

China’s Yang Jie is a true alto with a radiant and resonant low register well suited to the Wayfarer Songs, on which Mahler worked in the years of the First Symphony. In the West she includes Carmen in her signature roles. Long gone is the day when Wayfarer with its story of unrequited love was consider male property — just as the outwardly maternal Kindertotenlieder were once assigned to female vocalists. With perfect German diction Yang Lie is totally at home in the cycle with its shifting moods, its light and dark moments.

The quality of the March Mahler was undoubtedly enhanced by the presence in the orchestra of all four members of the Shanghai String Quartet. Founded in the city three decades ago and now on the faculty of the local conservatory, the four men enjoy “sacred-cow” status in Shanghai. When in town they teach at the Conservatory from which they graduated. (In the States they are in residence at New Jersey’s Montclair State University.) First violinist Weigang Li served as concert master on March 12.

Although the Shanghai Concert Hall, the orchestra’s local home, was built by a Chinese architect in 1930, it would be at home next door to Vienna’s gilded Musikverein or any of the historic halls of Europe that have survived. The hall — 1200 seats seems a good guess at its size — was reopened in 2004 following total reconstruction. It is acoustically sound, and generous lobbies opened onto balconies on a mild March evening. It is close to downtown, and taxis at a flat rate of 12 Yuan — no tips! — abound.

It would be presumptuous for a first-time concert goer in China to draw sweeping conclusions from a single experience. Nonetheless certain things were happily obvious. The concentrated — indeed, devout — attention that the Chinese bring to music is astonishing. Barely a muscle moves; even breathing seems hushed. There is absolutely no applause between movements, and the standing ovation now near-obligatory in the West is absent in Shanghai. Enthusiastic applause continued until conductor took concert master by the hand and left the stage.

The college-age set is a far larger part of the Shanghai audience than it is in the States — explained in part perhaps by the fact that the city boasts China’s major conservatory. And dress? As in almost all countries today one comes as one is. The “little black dress,” if China ever had one, has gone the way of the Mao jacket!

Wes Blomster

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