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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!”

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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

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English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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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.



François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire)
07 Jun 2011

Candide, Barbican Centre

‘Glitter and be gay!’ cries Cunegonde, determined to overcome the bitter circumstances in which she finds herself in sordid, downturn Paris.

Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Andrew Staples: Candide; Kiera Duffy: Cunegonde; Kim Criswell: Old Lady; Jeremy Huw Williams: Pangloss, Martin; David Robinson: Governer, Vanderdendur, Ragotski; Marcus Deloach: Maximilan, Captain; Kristy Swift: Paquette; Jeffrey Tucker: Bear Keeper, Inquisitor, Tzar Ivan; Matthew Morris: Cosmetic Merchant, Inquisitor, Charles Edward; Jason Switzer: Doctor, King Stanislaus; Michael Scarcelle: Junkman, Inquisitor, Hermann Augustus, Croupier; Peter Tantsits: Alchemist, Inquisitor, Sultan Achmet, Crook. London Symphony Chorus. London Symphony Orchestra. Kristjan Järvi: conductor. Thomas Kiemle: director/producer. Barbican Centre, London, Sunday, 5th June, 2011.

Above: François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire)


And, her show-shopping number from Bernstein’s opera-operatta-musical, Candide, certainly provided an apt watchword for this concert performance at London’s Barbican Centre on Sunday evening, which fizzed and sparkled, oozing happiness and sweetness to wash away the occasional glints of darkness.

From the first downbeat of Kristjan Järvi’s baton, as he furiously kick-started a breakneck overture, to the stirring choral conclusion, the energy never once flagged, and the melodies kept flowing. Järvi control of Bernstein’s flexible structures, with their changing time signatures, flexible syncopations and cross rhythms was superb, and he deftly kept the large forces of the orchestra and chorus synchronised, give or take a few untidy ritenutos, dynamically driving them forward. It’s not often that one sees an entire viola section smiling beatifically to themselves, but that’s what happened here as they rang out yet another glorious overture melody, anticipating the optimistic sentiments of Candide’s and Cunegonde’s vision of future bliss, ‘Oh happy we’. The LSO’s instrumentalists obviously enjoyed the indulgent riches of this colourful and euphonious score, and relished the variety of the composer’s effortless pastiches and parodies, although at times I would have liked a little more brash boldness from the brass and reckless abandon from the percussionists!

The chorus were in boisterous mood, their carefree swaying and animated hand-waving, providing a dash or two of visual humour to match the primary-colour lighting which flagged up changes of mood, for anyone in doubt. Having collapsed anarchically as the Westphalian schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck succumbed to an enemy onslaught, the chorus gleefully bobbed and cheered — ‘Watch ‘em die! … Hang ‘em high’ — through the frenzied mayhem of the Auto-da-fé. Their rather uncoordinated involvement was funny the first time, but rather tiring on the second, third, fourth occasion. However, by the final chorus, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, they were back firmly under the control of the conductor’s baton for the stunningly powerful a cappella declaration, ‘Let dreamers dream what world they please’.

Best of the soloists was Andrew Staples, as a wide-eyed, innocent Candide; he balanced a firm, focused tone with moments of more gentle reflection. The bright buoyancy of his opening ‘Life is happiness indeed’ had, without undue sentimentality, modulated by the end of his journey into a moving moment of realism and disillusion, as his love and hopes dissipated into ‘Nothing more than this’ — Cunegonde was really only in it for the money. Candide’s two Meditations in Act 1 were the highlight of the evening as, supported by piquantly alternating major/minor harmonies, he floated perfectly placed rising major sixths to convey his tender hopes that his teacher Pangloss’s maxim could indeed be true: ‘There is a sweetness in every woe’. Staples sincerity was utterly convincing as he put his faith in the ‘kindness’ and ‘sunlight I cannot see’; and strong harp and woodwind playing gave rhythmic and harmonic propulsion, suggesting optimism and resolution.

At times, Kiera Duffy might have done well to remember that power sometimes works best when balanced with restraint. For, while she dazzled in ‘Glitter and be gay’, crystal clear when striking the stratospheric heights of Cunegonde’s wild enthusiasm for a bling-laden life of recklessness and glamour, she allowed her enthusiasm to get the better of her and at times was in danger of slipping into melodrama and histrionics.

She was matched in her excesses by Kim Criswell, an old stager of musical theatre and ‘cross-over’, whose Old Lady was a wild, backcomb-haired banshee, exuberantly flinging herself — and her partners — into the tempestuous tango of the aptly titled ‘I am easily assimilated’, and the musical hall antics of ‘What’s the use’. Marcus DeLoach, as Maximilian, was one of the few whose diction was unfailingly crisp and biting; and, in various supporting roles, Jeffrey Tucker, Matthew Morris, Charles Edward, Jason Switzer, Peter Tantsits and Michael Scarcelle were uniformly accomplished.

But, I found Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams a disappointing Pangloss; he distinctly lacked the warm openness of sound needed to convey Pangloss’s spirit of innocent optimism. There was little sparkle, despite his diamante-studded tie, and he fell back on bluster and posturing. Both pitch and words were pretty indiscriminate, which made the title of his aria, in his second role as Martin, wryly ironic — ‘Words, words, words’.

Certainly, there is nothing sacred about Bernstein’s text. No fewer than six contributors had a hand in the book and lyrics, and it underwent numerous revisions, with Bernstein himself being involved in at least seven of them! Here we were treated to a cynical, occasionally acidic, narration by Rory Kinnear — updating that prepared by Bernstein and John Wells for concert performance. Kinnear reprised some of the bitter scepticism of his recent Hamlet at the National Theatre. Leaping blithely onto the platform, he was a master of droll scepticism, eye-brows arched, tongue firmly in-cheek. I suspect that many of the topical witticisms were added, or even improvised, by Kinnear himself; his voice amplified, we could sharply hear every riposte, something which could not always be said for the singers themselves who suffered when Järvi gave chorus and orchestra free rein, despite their placing at the front of the stage. It didn’t help that, although the libretto was printed in the programme, it was impossible to read the text in the darkened auditorium — at least during in the first Act before, presumably, complaints made their way to the stage management …

There was one ‘wrong note’ in Kinear’s narration, however, and it came right at the end when, interrupting the triumphant final cadences of the gloriously overwhelming chorus, he sardonically asked the audience, ‘Any questions?’, a quip which jarred with the musical sentiments expressed. Of course, there are no ‘questions’: the music is unambiguously jubilant, the ‘message’ clear.

That said, this flippant parting shot couldn’t dampen my spirits at the end of this wonderful performance and, despite the torrential June downpour, my smile lasted all the way home.

Claire Seymour

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