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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.



Sir Michael Tippett
24 Mar 2012

A Child of Our Time, Barbican Hall

The Barbican’s English oratorio series now reaches the twentieth century, with Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, though it will step back to The Dream of Gerontius next month.

Hugh Wood: Violin Concerto no.2, op.50; Sir Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time

Anthony Marwood (violin); Nicole Cabell (soprano); Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Friday 23 March 2012.

Above: Sir Michael Tippett


At a little more than an hour long, Tippett’s 1939-41 oratorio might have been thought to make for short measure by itself, though I for one should much prefer to leave wanting more rather than to regret the inclusion of padding. In any case, the companion piece was certainly not padding on this occasion; we were treated to the London premiere of Hugh Wood’s delightful second violin concerto, written between 2002 and 2004, and reviewed in 2008 (premiered by Alexandra Wood, the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and Sian Edwards in 2009). Cast in the ‘traditional’ three movements, ‘marked ‘Allegro appassionata e energico’, ‘Larghetto, calmo,’ and ‘Vivacissimo’, this proved to be a concerto worthy of any soloist’s — and orchestra’s — attention, and received committed performances from all concerned. Sir Andrew Davis is an old Wood hand, having recorded the composer’s Symphony and Scenes from Comus for NMC. His direction of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also featured on that recording, seemed authoritative, rhythms tight and colours boldly portrayed. Likewise the contribution of Anthony Marwood impressed. His is not a ‘big’ violin tone, or at least it was not on this occasion, but his shaping of Wood’s lines and his irreproachable intonation — there are a lot of tricky yet always idiomatic double-stopping passages here — served the composer well. What struck me most forcefully about the work were the powerful echoes of Berg: to have as a kinsman, if not a model, the composer of the greatest of all twentieth-century violin concertos is not necessarily a bad thing. I assume that the harmonic relationship between the two works must be deliberate. Certainly the way Wood’s themes construct themselves — at least quasi-serially, by the sound of it — has strong parallels in the work of his august predecessor. Even the solo violin theme which enters in the second bar (a rising figure of semiquavers, G-B-E-flat-F-sharp-B-flat-D-F-A, which then continues to soar above the orchestra in lyrical crotchet triplets) seems to harness the spirit if not the letter of Berg’s example. The transformative technique to which the themes are subjected, and through which they are developed, may ultimately have its roots in Liszt, even Beethoven, but it sounds very much Wood’s own. I wondered also whether , especially in the rondo-like finale, there was something of a homage to Prokofiev, though this may have been nothing more than unwitting correspondence; whatever the truth of that, the woodblocks and other lively, rhythmic untuned percussion gave a hint of the Russian composer’s second concerto. (Wood in his programme note pointed to a ‘Spanish’ tinge, ‘prompted by Alexandra Wood’s playing of Sarasate).

A Child of Our Time had the second half to itself. Davis and the BBC SO again have a good track-record in the composer’s music, if not quite so extensive as the conductor’s namesake, Sir Colin. Marking both the increasingly traumatic turn of events in the 1930s — in particular, Kristallnacht and the 1938 assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Jewish boy, composition beginning the day after war was declared — and the composer’s undertaking of Jungian analysis, this oratorio attempts to address the political by virtue of a turn to the psychoanalytical. That ultimately remains for me a problematical turn, though there can be no doubting the composer’s sincerity. Is it really enough in the Part Two scena — there are three parts, echoing Handel’s Messiah — for the Narrator’s ‘He shoots the official’ to be responded to with the mezzo’s ‘But he shoots only his dark brother’? It might well be the case that the fate of the boy whose tale is told obliquely can provide no answers, but do political atrocities really permit of a solution in which all we need to do is to master our dark unconscious?

At any rate, the oratorio received a fine performance. Its opening orchestral bars evoked a melancholy as ‘English’, if distinctively so, as the music of many of Tippett’s countrymen, up to and including Birtwistle, yet with its own harmonic and melodic inspiration. Are there in the music and the storytelling hints of Weill too, or does that merely reflect common influences? The BBC SO’s contribution impressed greatly, whether in the instrumental interludes — Tippett’s inspiration here Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis — or the more grandly orchestral passages, the opening to the Third Part rhythmically tight and implacable, not least thanks to Davis’s direction. The first interlude, with its trio of two solo flutes and solo viola against a softly singing cello section was powerfully matched by the third part ‘Preludium’, almost neo-Baroque, in which two flutes and solo oboe prepared us for the final peroration, chaste yet without Stravinskian coldness. Choral singing was excellent throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus as ever well trained by Stephen Jackson, yet with an emotional as well as a musical weight necessary to convey Tippett’s pain and transformation. Strength in anger — ‘A Spiritual of Anger’ — was powerfully conveyed in ‘Go down Moses’, though the intonation of Matthew Rose’s bass contributions was not always spot on. Nicole Cabell and the chorus provided what is perhaps the most magical moment. An exquisitely floated and shaded — with fulsome, though never excessive vibrato — soprano solo, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days…?’ persisted whilst the chorus movingly ‘stole in’ beneath, with the spiritual ‘Steal away’. The use of five spirituals, clearly echoing Bach’s Passion chorales, seems to me not without its problems; simplification of harmonic language at times sounds a little abrupt. Yet again, compositional sincerity tends to win out over such doubts. Karen Cargill, whilst definitely a mezzo, brought a welcome hint of the traditional oratorio contralto too to numbers such as ‘Man has measured the heavens with a telescope’. I was less sure about John Mark Ainsley’s contributions, sometimes both lachrymose and underpowered, struggling to be heard above the orchestra. (It should however be noted that he was a late replacement for an indisposed Toby Spence.) This may be a problematic work, then, but it received for the most part powerful, enlightened advocacy.

Mark Berry

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