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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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“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

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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

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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.



(Gustave Doré, lithographie de Barbe Bleue)
05 Nov 2011

Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall

Bartók’s only opera, a masterpiece to rank with other sole works in the genre such as Fidelio and Pelléas et Mélisande, was chosen for the climax of the Philharmonia’s year-long series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’.

Claude Debussy — Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Béla Bartók — Piano Concerto no.3; éla Bartók — Bluebeard’s Castle (semi-staged)

Yefim Bronfman (piano); Judit: Michelle DeYoung; Bluebeard: Sir John Tomlinson; Juliet Stevenson (narrator). Director: Nick Hillel (director); Staging: David Edwards; Set designs: Adam Wiltshire; Lighting: David Holmes. Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 3 November 2011.

Above: Lithograph of Bluebeard by Gustave Doré


It was the obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still earlier guise than the composer of Pelléas, and the third of Bartók’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is pretty much universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate, but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely — Prélude à l’après-midi received a fine performance. Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen; he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to later Debussy and to a number of works by Bartók and other composers of his generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of Debussy’s — and Bartók’s — foremost interpreters. Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance of this great work.

Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a concerto that does not always show Bartók at his best — was piquant and lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to the serried ranks of coughers.

Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version, directed by Nick Hillel. Bartók’s opera is a strange case, in that in many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority, as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections, and lighting all worked as they should.

Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually Pelléas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative: some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly, the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which, Bartók’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention. Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with Schoenberg’s contemporary Die glückliche Hand. On the other hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on and showing a few clouds on the move.

I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet, matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to the work, but might better have been discarded.

Mark Berry

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