Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the Proms - Sir Simon Rattle

Prom 46: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Peter Hoare, Christopher Purves and Thomas Quasthoff. And three wonderful choirs - the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and Orfeó Català from Barcelona, with Chorus Master Simon Halsey, Rattle's close associate for 35 years.

Dunedin Consort perform Bach's St John Passion at the Proms

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service.

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolay Kuznetsov [Source: Wikipedia]
23 Nov 2011

The Queen of Spades, Opera North

Opera North holds a special place in my affections: my first full opera in the theatre was the company’s Wozzeck, which I saw as a schoolboy at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, op.68

Lisa: Orla Boylan; Countess: Dame Josephine Barstow; Hermann: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts; Count Tomsky, Pluto: Jonathan Summers; Prince Yeletsky: William Dazeley; Pauline, Daphnis: Alexandra Sherman; Governess: Fiona Kimm; Chekalinsky: Daniel Norman; Sourin: Julian Tovey; Masha: Gillene Herbert; Chaplitsky: David Llewellyn; Narumov: Dean Robinson; Master of Ceremonies: Paul Rendall; Chloë: Miranda Bevin. Director: Neil Bartlett (director). Designs: Kandis Cook. Lighting: Chris Davey. Choreography: Leah Hausman. Chorus of Opera North (chorus master: Timothy Burke). Orchestra of Opera North. Richard Farnes (conductor). Barbican Theatre, London, Tuesday, 22 November 2011.

Above: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolay Kuznetsov [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The experience marked me for life. I have never doubted since that Wozzeck is one of the greatest operas ever written, nor have I doubted that opera, whatever the disappointments one may experience in practice, can at its best prove at least as potent a form of drama as any other. It is many years now since I heard a performance from the company, though I have received very good reports from those who have, often comparing its offerings favourably with those on offer from the two principal London houses. I was therefore delighted to have opportunity to see and to hear for myself in Opera North’s first visit to the Barbican Theatre. (More are planned.) The timing was interesting too, affording comparison with Eugene Onegin across town at the Coliseum. Claire Seymour, writing for this site, enjoyed Deborah Warner’s staging much more than I did (click here).

First impressions of Neil Bartlett’s production were preferable to those of Warner’s Met-bound anodyne crowd-pleaser. There is, at least to begin with, no evident point of view expressed; straightforward storytelling seems the order of the day. By the same token, however, that does not come across as a deliberate policy to play safe, even to condescend. The setting is where it ‘should’ be; costumes are of the period; there is neither jarring nor particular elucidation. It would have been bizarre and not just unwelcome if the audience had followed the practice of a segment of that for Onegin and had drowned out the music by applauding Kandis Cook’s serviceable sets; they simply did their job without ostentation and without sentimental emphasis upon petit bourgeois conceptions of the ‘beautiful’. However, I said ‘first impressions’ above, because there is one aspect of Bartlett’s staging that might distress the literal-minded. It seemed interesting to me, yet arguably out of place in a production that offered nothing more of the same, rather as if the concept had wandered in from elsewhere. I speak of Bartlett’s treatment of the Countess, who emerges a sex-crazed vamp: she certainly would have captured attention in her scarlet gown even if she had not been played by Dame Josephine Barstow. Fitting or not, it was at least an idea, which was more than could be said for anything Warner mustered. The Personenregie, however, was considerably less skilled, or at least its execution was. And If Catherine the Great made her appearance, I am afraid I missed it.

The real problems, though, lay in the musical performances, and above all with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Hermann. It did not sound as though this were an off-day, more a matter of having taken on a task that lay far beyond what the voice was incapable of delivering. It would be a matter of taste rather than judgement whether the shouting or tuning proved more painful. This, I am sad to say, constituted some of the most troubling professional singing I have heard; indeed, most student or other amateur performances are executed at a much higher level. He improved slightly during the third act, though he continued to croon in a manner that might have been thought excessive for a West End musical. Some smaller roles were no less approximate and crude, though, by the same token, some proved much better. William Dazeley’s Yeletsky impressed, as did the Tomsky of Jonathan Summers. Perhaps best of all was Alexandra Sherman’s Pauline. Hers was that rare thing: a true contralto. Moreover, she could use it to properly dramatic ends, the song, ‘Podrugi milïye,’ musically shaped and genuinely moving. Orla Boylan’s Lisa had its moments, but sometimes found herself all over the place in terms both of (melo-)drama and of intonation.

The chorus had clearly been well trained by Timothy Burke, and generally acquitted itself well, most of all in the third act, when, despite the translation, choral sound came across as more plausibly Russian than elsewhere. (The translation itself veered between embarrassing couplets and the merely prosaic; in that respect, Martin Pickard’s work recalled what we heard from him for Onegin.) Barstow, as the reader may have guessed, stole the show. Though her tuning was a little awry upon her entrance, and some might have queried the preponderance of quasi-spoken, parlando style, she can still hold a stage. One longed for more, wishing that her palpable commitment had rubbed off on others.

Richard Farnes proved intermittently impressive. There was certainly dramatic drive, sensitivity too, to his conducting. Yet, whilst there were moments in which the orchestra sounded to have just the right Tchaikovsky sound - the opening of the third act, for instance - there were other passages in which the score veered awkwardly between dark, would-be Wagnerism and soft-centred Puccini. A greater body of strings would have assisted: though what was mustered played well, the lack of heft was apparent throughout. Characterful woodwind was offset by variable brass, sometimes blaring, sometimes surprisingly tentative. (Placing outside the pit, at the edge of the stage, doubtless did not help.)

It was just about worth it for the Countess, then, but Opera North’s outing to London proved for the most part a damp squib. And it is surely a little too easy to say that the problem may have lain in staging so ambitious a work. After all, it was Wozzeck, no less, that made such an impression upon me in Sheffield. The stage director of that searing, life-changing Wozzeck? Ironically, one Deborah Warner…

Mark Berry

Click here for a photo gallery and other production information.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):