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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.



Giselle Allen as Tosca and Jesus Leon as Cavaradossi [Photo courtesy of NI Opera]
08 Apr 2011

Tosca, NI Opera

“Show goes on despite fresh bomb scare”. Not exactly the sort of headline a new opera company might have dreamt of for its inaugural production.

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

Floria Tosca: Giselle Allen (31st March/2nd April) Lee Bisset (1st April matinee performance); Mario Cavaradossi: Jesus Leon; Scarpia: Paul Carey Jones; Sacristan: Brendan Collins; Angelotti: John Molloy; Spoletta: Andrew Rees. Director: Oliver Mears. Conductor: Nicholas Chalmers. Designer: Simon Holdsworth. Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy.

Above: Giselle Allen as Tosca and Jesus Leon as Cavaradossi

Photos courtesy of NI Opera


It’s what happened to Northern Ireland Opera, however, on day two of its Tosca staging, when a device planted by dissident terrorists (the second in five days) forced the rapid abandonment of St Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry, the Act One venue in this site-specific staging. The show did indeed go on: Act One as a concert performance, Acts Two and Three in the city’s Guildhall and St Columb’s Hall, as scheduled. “We were prepared and decided we were going to go ahead with it anyway”, commented conductor Nicholas Chalmers stoically. “We will not be beaten”.

Artistically the production was a triumph. Its keynote was the studious avoidance of all the blowsiness and bombast which can reduce Tosca to the “shabby little shocker” of operatic legend. Oliver Mears’s staging had shock without shabbiness: in calm, clinical fashion he cut to the political quick of the drama, the raw ingredients of political struggle, state oppression, torture, murder, suicide and religion starkly anatomised in a city where for the thirty years of “The Troubles” (Northern Ireland’s vicious sectarian conflict) they were the lingua franca of everyday existence. A Tosca with contemporary relevance? Just a little…

Oliver_Mears_head_shot.gifOliver Mears

Act Two’s extended confrontation between Tosca and police chief Scarpia was in this respect seminal. Belfast-born Giselle Allen, in her first Tosca, delivered an already sharply modulated and nuanced reading of the part, unleashing fulsome waves of tone in the most straitened outbursts, retaining poise and focus in quieter, self-confessional passages. No surprise to learn that she is already an acclaimed Jenůfa. The Scarpia, Paul Carey Jones, was a study in restrained menace, cold, icy, vocally unhistrionic — and pretty scarifying. Mears utilised the given space (the sober wood-panelling and civic symbols of Derry City Council’s building) superbly: the attempted rape happened within touching distance of the front-row spectators, blood spurted graphically in front of their noses from the stabbing, and audience members filed past the still visible body of the butchered Scarpia, prostrate on a committee table at floor level, to get their interval refreshment. “Strong stuff”, a man next to me commented, adding a pointed reference to a notorious police interrogation centre in Northern Ireland. I said nothing.

Tosca_pic-1.gifGiselle Allen as Tosca and Paul Carey Jones as Scarpia

Earlier Mears had used a completely different logistical lay-out for Act One in St Columb’s Cathedral, the orchestra deployed in a side chapel and behind the altar, the aisle a conduit for the arrival of the dramatis personae and the excellent choir of local schoolchildren who intoned the “Te Deum” lustily, encouraged by the vividly comic and firmly voiced Sacristan of Cork baritone Brendan Collins. Mexican tenor Jesús León, slightly stiffer and less stage-confident than his Tosca, had handsome features and a pleasingly sappy upper voice going for him. His Cavaradossi was brooding, perhaps a touch too interiorised for effective projection. He rose to Act Three’s “E lucevan le stelle” (in English), sung in a cramped, grubbily-tiled police execution chamber where Mears had earlier staged a shockingly literal dumb-show shooting over Puccini’s lengthy orchestral introduction. I wondered what my interval interlocutor might be thinking.

The production as a whole was the very opposite of opera as commodification: there was no desire evident to cushion the rawness of the narrative content, no truck with the idea of opera as plush, comfortable middle-class entertainment. This was Tosca as riveting political drama, visceral without being in any way artificially pumped-up or gimmicky. It made the work seem like a truly great opera, rather than one which is merely massively popular. The audience stood as one at the end, noisily acclaiming what was undoubtedly a momentous evening for Northern Ireland Opera, in a part of the United Kingdom which has been on short (often non-existent) rations operatically throughout its ninety-year history. The new company’s first full (2011-12) season is awaited with the keenest interest.

Terry Blain

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