Recently in Performances
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
12 May 2012
Bartók and Szymanowski, Barbican Hall
In this, the second of two LSO concerts in which Péter Eötvös replaced
Pierre Boulez, one continued to feel the loss of the latter in his repertoire,
yet one equally continued to value his replacement, very much his own
first concert had inserted Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto
between Debussy’s Images and Scriabin’s Poem of
Ecstasy, here Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the ‘Song of the
Night’ was preceded by two Bartók works.The Szymanowski symphony provided
a fitting climax, and made for an interesting contrast with another recent
London performance, from Vladimir
Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In almost every respect,
Eötvös’s performance proved superior. Eötvös’s, or rather
Boulez’s, programme made a great deal more sense too. (There will,
extraordinarily, be a third London performance later in the year, or rather two
performances on 11 and 18 December, again from the LSO, conducted by Valery
In the opening bars, Eötvös imparted a fine sense of purpose, of onward
tread, which had often been lacking in Jurowski’s somewhat meandering
account. Yet there was no loss of delight in sonority, nor of fantasy from an
LSO very much on top form. Steve Davislim in his opening line, ‘O nie
śpij, druhu, nocy tej,’ (‘O! Sleep not, my dearest friend,
this night’) immediately announced himself more commandingly than
Jurowski’s tenor, more fervent, even possessed, for there was here and
elsewhere a fine sense of mysticism to the performances of all concerned. Where
Jurowski had often skated over the surface and had misplaced one particular
climax, here one truly felt that Eötvös knew where he was going, climaxes
expertly prepared and executed. Orchestrally and chorally – for the
London Symphony Chorus was on equally wonderful form – this was not just
a magic carpet of sound; it was a carpet that took us somewhere. Eötvös was, in
that typically Wagnerian dialectic, both more ‘symphonic’ and more
‘musico-dramatic,’ the one quality contributing to the other. Not
only did he exhibit a fine command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm; he
also communicated musical ‘character’, whether or no
Szymanowski’s ‘song’ embodies an actual ‘story’.
The opening of the second stanza was again noteworthy for Davislim’s
mystical yet commanding performance: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpia.’
(‘How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping.’) However, it was
equally remarkable for the Nietzschean stillness (hints of Also sprach
Zarathustra, both in Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s versions,
perhaps of Mahler’s Third Symphony too) from the orchestra and a duly
awestruck chorus. Orchestral memories of Tristan und Isolde soon
verged upon the overwhelming: this is Night, after all. And the chorus sounded
explosions in the heavens. Yes, contra Nietzsche, one can, indeed must,
transcend, even if only momentarily. And was that an echo of another
transfiguration, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in the orchestral
Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had found
the LSO’s strings and percussion on fine form too. I very much liked the
questing opening, violas going so far as to evoke the stirrings of
Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was a true darkness to Eötvös’s
performance, almost Romantic, but avowedly of the twentieth century, a darkness
that characterised both mood and trajectory, ‘fearful symmetry’
indeed. And how splendid it was to benefit from a full orchestral string
section, with no half-way house of a chamber compromise. That certainly enabled
a highly dramatic performance of the fugue to emerge, as enveloping, as
arresting a drama, so it seemed, as Bluebeard’s Castle itself.
The second movement benefited from the placing of the violins – crucial
in this of all works – to the extent that one had a sense of versicle and
response, properly ‘antiphonal’ (a word seemingly often employed by
people not entirely sure what it means). Rhythms were sharp without a hint of
showiness. The contrapuntal delights of both work and performance seemed to
evoke Bachian ‘invention’ in more than one sense. (One could hardly
fail to think of Mikrokosmos.) The slow movement was wonderfully
eerie, ‘night music’ that suggested as much a menacing toy kingdom,
a Nutcracker turned sour, as ‘mere’ Nature. And there was
a Bluebeard-like sadness underlying the violence, a vale of tears that
had no need of staging. The finale was taken at quite a lick, though there were
a few tempo adjustments later on that did not entirely convince. For the most
part, however, this was a performance secure in direction. Again, Bachian
antecedents were to the fore: a Transylvanian Brandenburg Concerto
Of the three performances, it was that of Bartók’s Second Violin
Concerto that slightly disappointed, mostly on account of the first movement,
in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed curiously disconnected from the
orchestra. Znaider is a musician I admire greatly, but here his approach seemed
somewhat sectional, and lacked a real sense of interplay with the LSO, whose
musicians could hardly be faulted. Perhaps it was telling that it was only
really in the cadenza that Znaider’s first-movement performance ignited.
What came thereafter, including the conclusion to that movement, seemed far
more responsive, far better integrated, giving a sense of what might have been.
The slow movement continued in that vein; the violin sang soulfully, nobly, but
now sounded infinitely better ‘connected’. Its central scherzando
material was sharply etched. The finale, though it had occasional reminders of
earlier disengagement, proved highly successful in voicing the sheer range of
Bartók’s thematic expression, in both solo and orchestral parts.
Znaider’s tone was seductive, but never for its own sake. Here was a
foretaste of the emotional commitment we should fully experience in