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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

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“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 Couperin
28 Nov 2011

François Couperin by Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

Although François Couperin won his reputation as an esteemed composer at the ostentatious and vainglorious court of Versailles, under the patronage of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, his work is often surprisingly discreet and intimate.

François Couperin: Sonata from Premier Ordre: La Françoise ‘Les Nations’; Première Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Deuxième Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Suite from Premier Ordre: La Françoise ‘Les Nations’; Sonata from Premier Ordre: L’Espagnole ’Les Nations’; Troisième Leçon de ténèbres pour le mercredi Saint; Suite from Premier Ordre: L’Espagnole ‘Les Nations’.

Dame Emma Kirkby, soprano; Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano. Florilegium. Ashley Solomon. director. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 24 November, 2011.

Above: François Couperin


These qualities were affectingly demonstrated during this wonderfully tender performance by Florilegum of secular instrumental and sacred vocal music, compositions which unite the best of contemporary French and Italian conventions.

Couperin was born in 1688 in Paris, the son of Charles Couperin, the organist St Gervais in Paris. On his father’s premature death, the organist position passed to Lalande, but François, an early musical genius, was already deputising for Lalande at the age of ten, and on his 18th birthday he officially inherited his father’s previous position. Lalande praised the young man’s innovative 1690 collection of Pièces d’orgue as “worthy of being given to the public” and helped to establish him as a Court organist in 1693. In 1700 Couperin acquired the younger D’Anglebert’s position as harpsichordist at Versailles.

He amassed a notable quantity of superlative harpsichord pieces, which began appearing in elegantly engraved editions in 1713, following other noteworthy collections by Rameau and Dandrieu; but, ever the individualist, Couperin chose to group his pièces into ordres rather than suites, and relied much less on dance movements than his contemporaries, preferring the freer and more evocative pièces de caractère.

In his publications of the early 1720s he offered a wide variety of ways in which the French and Italian styles might be united. As Richard Langham Smith’s eloquent, informative programme notes state, the works grouped under the title of Les Nations were “written in the style of Corelli”; the composer had been “charmed by the sonatas of Corelli, whose works I shall love as long as I shall live, just as I do the works of Monsieur de Lully”.

Les Nations is the title under which Couperin published a collection of four large-scale sonatas; Florilegum presented two – the earliest of the ordres composed for chamber consort – La Françoise and L’Espagnole. Director Ashley Solomon, fellow traverse flautist Andrew Crawford, and violinists Bojan Cici and Tuomo Suni were expressively supported by Emilia Benjamin’s viola da gamba, David Miller’s theorbo and the delectable harpsichord playing of Terence Charistan. The ensemble relished Couperin’s luscious timbres and colours, responding naturally to the considerable rhetoric of the small dance forms, exploiting contrast and delighting in the piquant expressive dissonances.

In the slower, more intricate movements, as in the ‘Sarabande’ of L’Espagnole, the meticulous attention to ornament and detail was impressive, although such details were never allowed to disrupt the graceful melodic line. String and woodwind articulation in the more energetic dances was bracingly crisp and fresh; repetitions were constantly re-invigorated. Rapid passage work in ‘La Gigue’ from La Françoise was sharply articulated. Despite the fact that these interpretations were clearly honed to perfection, there was a surprising sense of spontaneity, as if the reading was unfolding in real time.

Florilegum.pngFlorilegium [Photo by Amit Lennon]

The instrumentalists were joined by sopranos Dame Emma Kirkby and Elin Manahan Thomas in Couperin’s captivating Leçons de Ténèbres, extremely beautiful and genuinely spiritual music for ecclesiastical use. Couperin’s interest in the Italian style, as represented by Carissimi and Charpentier, influenced his sacred vocal music, particularly his motets, versets and leçons de ténèbres, and the result of this stylistic diffusion is enchantingly presented in the Leçons.

In the Tenebrae service, psalms are sung, interspersed with the text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. In Couperin’s setting we are aware of delicate and deliberate crafting: each of the responsaries is preceded by a huge musical ‘capital letter’ much like the way the first letter of a Hebrew psalm is set to a long melisma – as Langham Smith describes “a musical equivalent to an ornamented manuscript with elaborately gilded capital letters.”

The two soloists brought their own strengths to the delivery of the text. Thomas, alert and energised, using the voice to thrill and excite; Kirkby effortlessly shaped individual phrases into affecting larger units, creating heart-rending melodic shapes and inflecting the text with human sentiment. Soaring melodic arches and effortlessly gilded ornaments evoked cathedral realms. For Kirkby aficionados, vocal purity and beauty is taken for granted, but she also exhibited a real sense of the architectural splendour of these pieces.

Thomas’s pronunciation of the Latin text was idiomatically French in inflection, as it would have been performed at the time. Her ornamentation was superb; she produced a shimmering beauty which invigorated the sacred text with exotic nuance. In the third lesson, the intertwined soaring voices evoked aspiring gothic cathedral arches. The accompaniment was flexible and alert, sensitive to nuance and creating a real sense of intimacy. The repeated refrain, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominium Deum tuum”, (Jerusalem, return thee to the Lord, thy God) both united the various lessons, and provided variety and gradation.

These are pieces of heavenly exquisiteness, designed to inspire piety through their sheer beauty. Whatever one’s religious allegiances and affiliations, this recital inspired ‘devotion’ through the performers’ absolute commitment to magnificent splendour and nuanced, expressive inflection, perfectly assimilating the sacred and the secular.

Claire Seymour

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