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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.



Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]
05 Mar 2011

Roméo et Juliette, Philadelphia

Neither the music nor the libretto of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette is quite compelling enough to have made it a popular standard.

Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette

Romeo: Stephen Costello; Juliet: Ailyn Pérez; Mercutio: Marian Pop; Stéphano: Elena Belfiore; Capulet: Daniel Mobbs; Gertrude: Olivia Vote; Tybalt: Taylor Stayton; Duke of Verona: Frank Mitchell; Friar Laurent: Justin Hopkins; Gregario: Jeffrey Chapman; Paris: Siddartha Misra; Benvolio: Paul Vetrano. Opera Company of Philadelphia. Conductor: Jacques Lacombe. Director: Manfred Schweigkofler.

Above: Romeo and Juliet by Ford Maddox Brown (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]


Fifty years ago performances were heavily cut, as much of the music lacks dramatic punch. The idiomatic Italo-French performance style in which it was written has all but died out. Its libretto bowdlerizes Shakespeare.

Yet a number of memorable arias and duets—and the reflected glory of the Bard—have kept Roméo alive. It is, moreover, widely viewed an appropriate vehicle for young and visually appropriate singers with medium-weight voices—though perhaps wrongly, since the greatest Roméos have included Jean de Reszke, Georges Thill, Jussi Björling, and Franco Corelli. The opera is thus intermittently revived when fresh new talent is at hand.

Such was the case this month at the Philadelphia Opera, which cast Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello as the stat-crossed lovers. Pictures of the good-looking couple, shot at an all-day session last summer, made for effective publicity. Pérez and Costello were on the airwaves and web, recounting their story of having graduated from Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and becoming real-life husband and wife in 2008. Both are rising quickly in the opera world. Costello will join Anna Netrebko and Elīna Garanča for his second opening night at the Met next fall. Pérez has been singing in Berlin, Vienna, London and La Scala.

This casting was evidently insufficient to assure a box-office hit, so the company imported producer Manfred Schweigkofler from Italy. His big concept was to reset the story as a modern-day haute couture battle between rival Capulet and Montague fashion houses. The idea is not as radical as it might sound. Modern Shakespeare adaptations are old hat after Baz Luhrmann’s diverting (if not deep) film Romeo+Juliet and the Shakespeare Retold version of Macbeth, with its warring chefs. Opera Company of Philadelphia has had good luck in the past with modernized productions, most notably its wonderfully whacky 1950s Cenerentola a few years back, which opened with Angelina pushing around a vacuum cleaner.

Some local critics were hostile. True, this Juliet was more Versace than virgin, the modern setting belied the Victorian-era text, and some subtleties of Gounod’s score were obscured by overly energetic stage activity. Yet I found the fashionista concept dramatically engaging. Why not portray Juliette as a teenage House of Capulet model, play her Dad as the head designer, center the Capulet party on a group of runway models parading new outfits, deliver the poison in a martini glass, let paparazzi swarm around the stage, stage fights with golf clubs not swords, and set paper boys loose through the audience delivering tragic news? Schweigkofler has, moreover, a keen sense of color and line; the set, designed by Nora Veneri, looked great, even if the stage business taking place on it could be cloying. The unit set was clearly built to be inexpensive. No doubt the production concept helped sell out the house, create buzz, and stimulate community involvement—since fashion students from three local universities designed outfits for the party aka runway show.

Yet in the end, of course, Roméo needs to sell itself on the singing of its leads. Both seemed to take a while to warm up, or simply felt more comfortable in later acts. Costello’s famous second-act aria, “Ah, lève-toi soleil!,” was short-breathed and dynamically imprecise. Thereafter he seemed to settle down, displaying more subtle dynamics and phrasing—though his timbre often retained a pressed, somewhat monochromatically metallic “young tenor” sound, with the (often conjoined) tendency to slide off pitch. There is little doubt, nonetheless, that this is an exceptional voice of real promise, with true Italianate virtues: squillo, ringing high notes, and some ability to mix head and chest tones. His French was adequate.

Pérez is the more energetic stage presence. As happens with many young sopranos, her voice is now moving beyond the lyric coloratura roles in which she has specialized to date. She was least comfortable in the famous Act I showpiece, but, like Costello, she seemed warm into the role thereafter. Like him, also, her voice can be cooler and more metallic than one might wish; I found the bottom of the voice more attractive. Yet there is little doubt that this is a gifted, smart and technically accomplished singer with a potentially important career ahead of her. The duets, as one might perhaps expect from a married couple, were well-rehearsed.

The other members of the ensemble were strong, particularly fellow AVA graduate Daniel Mobbs as Capulet, but also Romanian baritone Marian Pop, Italian mezzo Elena Belfiore, and three other young singers with Philadelphia connections: Olivia Vote, Taylor Strayton, and Justin Hopkins. The chorus sang lustily and the orchestra, a weak link in many Philadelphia performances, surpassed its usual standard under the unaccustomed baton of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director, Jacques Lacombe.

Andrew Moravcsik

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