Recently in Performances
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.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
24 Apr 2011
It has long been my belief that the problems of the planet would be resolved
(or move on to their next stage) if only the folk of every ethnicity (nation,
faith, historic minority, tribe) would devote their energy to creating
opera—and perhaps theater or dance—out of its musical and mythical
That would certainly calm a lot of people down at any rate. The
Arabs, for example. They’ve grown understandably restive about the way
their societies have been run lately, and with their capacity for narration
(1001 Nights, anybody?) and distinctive musical heritage, opera ought
to be a natural for them. The more cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world have
developed a rich theatrical scene in the last century, and their films and
music-videos imply the cultural jump would not be an awkward one. There’s
a kebab-and-hookah restaurant near me that shows Egyptian music-videos from the
early Nasser years, or so I infer by the length of the ladies’ skirts.
But we’ll have to be quick before Arab culture is swamped (as youtube is
already swamped) with Bollywood-style Arabic videos, of which Lebanon already
produces quite a trove.
Mohammed Fairouz, who is 26 and was educated in London (his biography in the
program is cagey about where exactly he was born), has already prowled much of
the planet, studying instruments from the oud to the didgeridoo, though the
Mimesis Orchestra that played the premiere of his opera, Sumeida’s
Song, in the hall of the Ethical Culture Society last week was made up of
traditional Western instruments with some enhanced percussion. The use to which
Fairouz put this orchestra demonstrates an impressive control of the varied
textures it can produce. He was careful—perhaps unduly so—to avoid
the trap of relying on “Middle Eastern” motifs in
“Western” orchestration, which could have sounded like
Hollywood’s scores for Arabian Nights movies of the fifties, but he
introduced a phrase or two of Middle Eastern-style drumbeat or oboe riff into a
manner more typical of spiky modern borderline tonalities. Middle Eastern-isms
have been explored in considerably greater detail in John Corigliano’s
wind concerti, but that is the very sentimentality that Fairouz evades.
The character of the score across three brief acts (about eighty minutes)
gave every section of the orchestra something interesting to do. Percussion, as
is true with so many modernist works, was full of interest, but the beats were
not for dancing: Rather, they illustrated references in the text to winds, to
vendetta, to railroads. Woodwinds did not mimic Arabian lament but underlined
phrases in the drama. Thunderous low brasses accompanied deadly events in an
international manner. Yet this very avoidance of anything specifically
“Arabian” may have been a mistake: The most affecting moment of the
score, for me, was the last wail of an implacable mother: The soprano’s
voice, shifting through semitones, seemed to imply a mixture of traditional
keening with an uncertainty about her bloodthirst and its consequences that
went well with the fading, uneasy tremolos of the last bars of the opera and
encapsulates the moral of the story.
All this expert orchestration was, unfortunately, not matched by any gift
for libretto-writing. The story, taken without alteration from a classic play by the modern
Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, concerns the widowed Asakir, whom we find
awaiting her son’s return from the big city. When his father was murdered
by a rival clan, she smuggled the boy to Cairo, hoping he’d apprentice to
a butcher—in order to learn to use a knife properly. Instead, he went to
college and realized how his rural people have been oppressed. He is 19 now, a
modern man who refuses to consider vendetta—he’d rather organize
the people to improve their dreary lives. His mother, outraged, taunts one of
his cousins into killing her disgrace of a son. The cousin is Sumeida, whose
song, sung twice, signifies first Alwan’s return, then his death.
There are possibilities here, for a librettist of genius, but in the
unaltered play that constitutes the libretto it is rather ploddingly told. It is difficult not to recall such
similarly brutal and elemental stories as those of Cavalleria
Rusticana or Tosca, and how cleverly their librettists slid
back-story into dramatic event. In Sumeida’s Song, everything
is explained at the moment it is said, and none of the music carries us, holds
us melodically, or builds to a satisfying explosion. In eschewing melodramatic
music in a melodramatic tale, Fairouz, like most modern composers, really has
nowhere to turn. His intriguing orchestration is accompaniment, whereas in
opera the music should share the dramatic propulsion. It is not good being told
(as the libretto told us, at several moments) that someone is performing an
aria; either we feel it as an aria, as a statement, as an expression of inner
feeling, or we do not. These arias were indistinguishable from the explicatory
Fairouz’s vocal writing seemed either ungrateful, exploring the
extremes of his prima donna’s range in both directions, or else Jo Ellen
Miller as the murderous Asakir simply wasn’t up to it. Inaudible in the
first act, she pulled some dignified phrases out at as the drama proceeded.
None of the other singers had a fully-formed character to portray, and all were
easily drowned out when the orchestra roused itself, though the composer
politely restrained them whenever some special lyrical message needed to be
Fairouz demonstrated genuine ability and achievement as an orchestral
technician, and he may well have more to offer singers with a more focused text
(he has composed ten song cycles), but nothing about Sumeida’s
Song suggested a mature affinity for opera.