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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.

COC’d Up Ariodante

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.

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

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“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.



Joseph Conrad
04 Nov 2011

Heart of Darkness, Royal Opera

There are some literary texts which, by dint of their intense compression of incident, their creators’ firm control of structure, and the precision of linguistic nuance, do not naturally seem to lend themselves to operatic treatment.

Tarik O’Regan: Heart of Darkness

Marlow: Alan Oke; Kurtz: Morten Lassenius Kramp; Woman of the River/Fiancée: Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers; Harlequin: Jaewoo Kim; Doctor/Boilermaker: Donald Maxwell; Director of the Thames Boat: Njabulo Madlala; Manager/Secretary: Sipho Fubesi; Chief Accountant/Helmsman: Paul Hopwood. Conductor: Oliver Gooch.Chroma Ensemble. Opera East Productions. Director: Edward Dick. Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London, Tuesday, 1st November 2011.

Above: Joseph Conrad


The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness might seem to belong in this category; but, as Britten so supremely demonstrated in the case of Henry James’ novella, and Tarik O’Regan has skilfully shown in this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s tale of exploration, obsession and morality, we would be wrong to make such assumptions. Indeed, Conrad himself described the novella in musical terms in his 1917 Preface: “… like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”

Echoes of Britten loom large in Tarek’s new opera, performed in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House by Opera East, directed inventively by Edward Dick. The (almost) exclusively male cast, the ship-bound setting, the exposure of dark, compelling psychological forces, the exploration of guilt and silence, all recall Britten’s Billy Budd. Marlow’s soul-searching self-interrogation parallels the moral dilemmas and regret of Captain Vere. Similarly, O’Regan’s musical means — a fluent melodic idiom which serves the text effectively and expressively, an eclectic chamber instrumentation, the musical articulation and intimation of mysteries and the ‘unknown’ — are reminiscent of Britten’s style and techniques.

Drawing the economical but resonant text exclusively from Conrad’s own words (both the novella and his diaries), librettist Tom Phillips has retained the original device of relating events through a ‘frame’, as Marlow reveals his history to his fellow seafarers as they wait aboard ship for a mist to clear from the Thames and allow them to continue their homeward journey. But, Phillips has also provided a second ‘frame’ to envelope the first, in which Marlow visit’s Kurtz’s European fiancée, the opening brief fragment remaining obscure until the meaning of Marlow’s mysterious encounter is revealed at the close.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ stage designs and Rick Fisher’s lighting skilfully allow for slick, convincing shift between times and locations, the Thames estuary and the Central African interior. The predominantly darkened set is occasionally illuminated or washed by a disturbing glow, as when, for example, a luminous miasma hovers eerily and ominously above the stage. The water-borne platform of the ship’s deck rolls and lurches to the lapping rhythms of the river.

As was the case with The Turn of the Screw, O’Regan and Phillips have had both to distil and clarify some of the ambiguities of the literary text, to achieve a coherent form suited for dramatic presentation, and to create space for musical presentation and expansion of the rich inferences of the original.

O’Regan’s varied and atmospheric orchestration certainly achieves the latter. Avoiding clichés but making use of some sufficiently familiar melodical and timbral associations, the composer has skilfully evoked place and ambience with precision and impact. Harp, celeste, guitar and energetic percussion underscore the heat and mystery of the Congolese jungle. In contrast, the arrival of the long-awaited “rivets” which will enable Marlow and his shipmates to continue their journey to the heart of the interior heralds a riotous dance of glee, a momentary alleviation of the oppressive spirit of anxiety and danger which overshadows their passage.

The-cast-of-Heart-of-Darkne.gifThe cast of The Heart of Darkness [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

The handling of form and pace is superb. Marlow’s journey is swift but the composer allows for moments of repose and reflection, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly altering tempo and metre, register and colour. The complicated score was impressively conducted by Oliver Gooch, who was in full command of the musico-dramatic structure of the work, and alert to the emotional ‘weight’ of significant moments. Gooch was superbly served by the instrumentalists of Chroma, whose accuracy, energy and mastery of various idioms, and sensitivity to the singers and the text, was exemplary.

As Marlow, tenor Alan Oke had the lion’s share of the work, and gave a powerful, moving performance. His diction was clear and eloquent, and he employed contrasting tones to convey the ambivalence of his action and his own moral evaluation of them. Oke was supported by a fine cast. Bass Donald Maxwell was a suspicious-looking Doctor, and a buoyant, lively Boilermaker; Jaewoo Kim’s Harlequin was athletic and intriguing, both physically and orally. A committed performance by Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp depicted the full horror and despair of Kurtz’s disintegration. The soaring, wordless vocalisation of Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers, as the River Woman who mournfully laments Kurtz’s passing, provided a welcome timbral counterpart to the lower registers of the male voices, and conjured an ambience of suffering, extremity and the limits of human endurance.

The opera builds to a powerful climactic scene: Kurtz’s death — inarticulate, raving, disillusioned — brings Marlow to the realisation that, “His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad”. Here, the vocal expressiveness of O’Regan’s melodic line was expertly utilised by Oke to reveal Marlow’s painful recognition of human failing.

A final frame reveals the significance and meaning of the opening ‘frame’: Marlow is unable to reveal the truth of Kurtz’s ultimate horrific vision to the latter’s fiancée — it is simply “too dark”. This chilling scene is followed by what is perhaps the opera’s only structural weakness; for Marlow commences a short ‘explanation’, offered to his crew and to the audience, of the role played by the exploiting colonialists in Kurtz’s tragedy, explication which adds a slightly distracting ‘footnote’ (highlighting the colonial theme of the original) to what has up until that point been a single-focused “musical psychodrama”, as the creators themselves describe the work.

But that is a minor observation. This is a thrilling new work, in a brilliantly realised production. I hope I get the opportunity to see it again soon.

Claire Seymour

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