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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.

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Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.

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.

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.

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“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.



Sara Mingardo as Penelope [Photo by Lucie Jansch ]
23 Oct 2011

Intertwining facets of Italian High Baroque

‘Erotic oratorio’ is the odd-sounding definition devised by modern scholars, such as Howard E. Smither, for those pious music dramas employing sex-laden plots from the Bible, the Apocrypha or the lives of Saints in order to give the audience moral instruction in a quasi-operatic, if generally unstaged, form.

Antonio Draghi: Oratorio di Giuditta
Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria

See body of review for cast lists

Above: Sara Mingardo as Penelope [Photo by Lucie Jansch ]


Judith, Esther, Delilah, Bathsheba, Mary Magdalen, Saint Cecilia, Saint Agatha and their companions were the favorite heroines of those stories, inasmuch their feminine charms, and their dangerous influence on men’s behavior, were often graphically described in the librettos.

frontesp_Giuditta_PARTIT.pngManuscript title page of Oratorio di Giuditta © Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

La vedova generosa [The Generous Widow] is the recently identified subtitle for Giuditta, one among the several dozens oratorios written by the Rimini-born composer Antonio Draghi (1634/35-1700) for the Habsburg imperial court at Vienna. One may scent therein a tribute to Draghi’s generous employer, the empress dowager Eleonora Gonzaga, whose musical household in Vienna was second only to that of her stepson, the music-avid (and amateur composer) emperor Leopold I. Both Eleonora and Leopold were devout Roman Catholics, much Italianate in their taste for music drama. Besides opera proper, they invested a good amount of their time and financial resources on oratorios, a musical entertainment originally devised by St. Philip Neri to keep people off the dangerous enticements of secular theaters, but soon transformed into a “perfect spiritual melodrama”, as abate Arcangelo Spagna, a theorist, put it in 1706.

Thus the subject of Judith, the ‘generous’ Jewish widow who delivered her people from the Assyrian chieftain Holofernes by means of unorthodox sexual warfare, could not escape Eleonora’s attention, nor the one of an ambitious court composer. Just months after the premiere performance, which arguably took place some time between Lent 1668 and Lent 1669, Draghi was promoted from the Empress’ to the Emperor’s service, with a substantial raise in his salary.

Oratorio di Giuditta2_crediti Fabiana Rossi.pngRimini, Ensemble Seicentonovecento in Draghi’s Giuditta [Photo by Fabiana Rossi]

So much for the historic background. As to the music itself, Draghi’s Giuditta stands mid-way between the earlier, Cavalli-style, Venetian opera and the progressive Neapolitan school launched by Alessandro Scarlatti during the following decade. The prevailing syllabic recitative is largely peppered with elaborate florid passages, and most cadenzas soar to eloquent ariosos in triple time, sometimes with a dance-like lilt. Although just two numbers are formally labeled “aria” in the manuscript score, there are actually a few more. While only the final ensemble for the four soloists (Judith, her maid Abra, Holofernes and the Narrator) brings the caption “da capo”, two arias for Abra - somewhat of a comic character - are clearly set in the the ‘modern’ ternary form A-B-A`, a daring experiment for the times. However, the centerpiece is a long and articulate conversation scene between Holofernes and Judith, totalling nearly one fourth of the entire work. It’s a red-hot skirmish between the lusty chieftain and his would-be victim; the former voicing his desire enhanced by heavy drunkennes, the latter pretending to reciprocate but determined to cut his head as soon as he falls asleep.

Every manner of compositional devices are employed here, from secco recitative, through arioso, to outright aria (particularly compelling is “In dolce calma” for Holofernes, accompanied by a pair of gambas). Minutes before accomplishing her brave deed, Judith fulfills the dearest expectation of any early opera-goer: a lament on a descending chromatic tetrachord, the time-honored emblem for grief and supplication (“Pietà Signor”).

Such a precious rediscovery was presented in Draghi’s native city as a special project within the 62.nd installment of the Sagra Musicale Malatestiana, a major festival series attracting visitors from several countries. For the third year in a row, Italian and Austrian institutions joined forces to celebrate Draghi, hitherto an injustly neglected composer of the Baroque era. Contrary to the current fade for oratorios, the Rome-based Ensemble Seicentonovecento led by Flavio Colusso didn’t arrange a fully staged production. The venue, a large 18th-century Jesuit church in downtown Rimini, offered visual attractions enough. No props, very few movements from the singers, and passages from period sermons delivered by actress Silvia De Palma shaped the performance as close as possible to the original conditions: half private entertainment, albeit in fashionable court circles, and half act of religious worship. Of course, most credit for the success goes to the music department. A scanty yet energetic ensemble of two violins, theorbo, organ and harpsichord accompanied a quartet of vocal soloists conversant both with the dramatic subtleties of recitar cantando and the virtuosic coloratura of late 17th-century bel canto. Two recognized specialists as sopranos Gemma Bertagnolli (Giuditta) and Elena Cecchi Fedi (Abra) were complemented by the up-and-coming bass Luigi De Donato (Oloferne) and by the male alto Antonio Giovannini, a beginner who seems poised for great things.

Robert Wilson’s fans use to maintain that he deepens and actualizes the dramaturgy of those operas he happens to stage. In my opinion, either is hardly true, as the Texan director’s strategy apparently aims at sucking the life out of any particular opera, freezing down its dramaturgy deep below the zero point in the pursue of such ritual impassiveness as it was probably the case with the original Greek tragedy - and still is with the Byzantine church liturgy, the Japanese Nô, India’s Katakhali or Stockhausen’s Licht cycle. To be sure, all these theatrical or quasi-theatrical genres are indented in a respectable religious vision where issues of style, symbols and formality are paramount, but actualization is obviously ruled out, while deepths of emotion (if any) are the individual elaboration of their devout attenders. Whether about Parsifal or Aida, Gluck’s French Orphée or his Monteverdi forerunner Orfeo, each of Wilson’s productions closely resembles but Wilson, just as any Mass resembles another Mass, leaving aside such local details as the language of the sung texts and the music accompanying them.

The present Ritorno di Ulisse - being the middle panel of a Monteverdi/Wilson trilogy scheduled by La Scala in co-production with the Paris Opéra between 2009 and 2013 - sticks to the trend: neither reconstruction nor deconstruction of the Classic, rather an embalming of it as in a classy funeral parlour. In the Prologue, the curtain rises on a backdrop mirroring Poussin’s Le Printemps, an Arcadian landscape inhabited by cute Disney-esque animals and mimes embodying Love, Fortune, Time and Human Frailty; too bad that the corresponding singers are plunged in the pit to the disadvantage of audibility. The core action revolves within hollow spaces ‘representing’ the sea or the Olympus, while the royal palace at Ithaca, where Penelope is detained in self-imprisonment, is aptly surrounded with menacing black slates.

the Bow Contest scene.pngThe Bow Contest scene [Photo by Lucie Jansch]

Deities and human beings, the powerful and the destitutes, the goodies and the villains, look equally unimpassioned and hieratic; static figures striking enigmatic poses with their white-gloved hands and their pale, heavily made-up, faces. Most of them, enclosed in Baroque parade armours, are donning lofty wigs or feathered bonnets. A déjà vu from the court pageants at Paris and Vienna during the mid 1600s, thus leaving the timeline near the 1640 premiere of the opera. What else? Colour-coded lighting schemes and sparse but effective props: Ulysse’s bow, the skeleton of a ship bottom, a Greek idol on a column.

Deaf to the minimal-chic mermaids of Wilson’s staging, Rinaldo Alessandrini offered a vibrant rendering of the score, despite the many uncertainties surrounding the actual completness of the unique Vienna manuscript (the critical edition he lately prepared for Bärenreiter underwent a few cuts as well as some educated guesses about the instrumental colours). The continuo players of his Concerto Italiano added authentic flare to a selection of strings from the Scala pit orchestra. Thus Monteverdi’s explicit concern for "affetti" (human passions) revived from Wilson's ritual fridge, also thanks to a company of all-Italian voices where Sara Mingardo and Furio Zanasi, both accomplished artists beyond strict specialist boundaries, towered as Penelope and Ulisse. Luca Dordolo made a graceful Eumete, Marianna Pizzolato a convincing Ericlea, Leonardo Cortellazzi’s Telemaco soared as the performance progressed. Among the double-bill cameos, basses Salvo Vitale and Luigi De Donato displayed remarkable panache. I only wonder what happened to brave Monica Bacelli, who for one time left aside her favorite breeches roles. Her Melanto, although allowed to display more acting liveliness than any other character in the show, betrayed an alarming vocal disarray. Hopefully just an off night.

Carlo Vitali

Cast Lists

Antonio Draghi: Oratorio di Giuditta (1668, libretto by anonymous)

Giuditta: Gemma Bertagnolli; Abra: Elena Cecchi Fedi; Testo [The Narrator]: Antonio Giovannini; Oloferne: Luigi De Donato. Ensemble Seicentonovecento (on period instruments). Flavio Colusso, conductor. Chiesa del Suffragio, Rimini, Italy. Performance of 20 September 2011.

Claudio Monteverdi: Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria (1640, libretto by Giacomo Badoaro)

Ulisse: Furio Zanasi; Penelope: Sara Mingardo; Eumete: Luca Dordolo; Telemaco: Leonardo Cortellazzi; Fortuna/Melanto: Monica Bacelli; Il Tempo/Nettuno: Luigi De Donato; a.o. Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, with continuo elements from Concerto Italiano. Robert Wilson, director. Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy. Performance of 28 September 2011.

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