Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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!”

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

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).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“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.

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.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

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.



Così Fan Tutte, Hampstead Garden Opera
09 May 2012

My Big Fat American Moustache: A Wartime Così Fan Tutte

An energetic and exceptionally entertaining production of Così fan tutte sung in English and set during World War II, when the Americans often got the girls.

W. A. Mozart: Così Fan Tutte

Ferrando: Zachary Devin; Guglielmo: Henry Manning; Fiordiligi: Maud Millar; Dorabella: Sarah Denbee; Despina: Marion Wyllie; Don Alfonso: Daniel Roddick. Hampstead Garden Opera. Conductor: Dorian Komanoff Bandy. Production Director: Daisy Evans. Artistic Director: Oliver-John Ruthven. Set and Costume Designer: Katherine Heath. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London, 3 May 2012.

Photos by Laurent Compagnon courtesy of Hampstead Garden Opera


Daisy Evans, who directed Così fan tutte for Hampstead Garden Opera, had the wonderfully inspired idea of setting it in Sicily, in October 1943, at the height of the Allies’ Italian campaign. Ferrando and Guglielmo become two young British lieutenants, briefly on leave from the front on the mainland, and Fiordiligi and Dorabella two giddy members of an Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) concert troupe sent out to divert the Allied soldiers. By this historical juncture British and American troops were fighting together, and this provides Ferrando and Guglielmo with a good reason to disguise themselves as Americans. Evans describes the scenario in her “Director’s Note” as “a micro society built far from home with people you’d never normally encounter, where motivation, morals and hope become plastic, changeable and precarious.” It’s all very convincing.

I was reminded of Kenneth Branagh’s sadly underrated cinematic updating of Love’s Labour’s Lost, set in the late 1930s with the threat of war looming over Europe — not least because of the striking parallels between Shakespeare’s very unconventional comedy and Mozart’s opera. In both cases the introduction of the realities of war gives an “edge” to proceedings often represented as unfolding in a dreamy never-never space, while also, paradoxically, somehow justifying any silliness that does not involve mass slaughter.

Evans’s concept works brilliantly in every respect, and I have no hesitation declaring this the most dramatically solid Così I’ve seen. In the original Da Ponte opera, the decision of Ferrando and Guglielmo to disguise themselves as bushily-moustached Albanians who happen to speak perfect Italian is basically farcical, very much like the lovers pretending to be Russians in Love’s Labour’s Lost. One feels they could be from any country, for all that it matters; one cannot imagine the mere fact of their being Albanian adding to their attraction. By contrast, in the Hampstead Garden Opera production the decision of the lovers to impersonate Americans has real point, and the lines about moustaches are actually funnier — at least if you’re British. In seeming to be Americans, Ferrando and Guglielmo are seen to have an immediate advantage over their British counterparts: they are wealthier, better dressed, more confident, gung-ho and “with it.” They have wonderful things like chocolate and nylon stockings, and can advertise their sexual prowess through raunchier modes of dancing. From the moment they first appear it is obvious the “real” Ferrando and Guglielmo are involved in an unequal struggle. Theatrically speaking, too, the old cliché about two countries divided by a common language allows for plenty of fun, in general the attempts at American pronunciation being (I take it) deliberately bad and inconsistent.

A1193.gif(Left to right) Sarah Denbee (Dorabella), Henry Manning (Guglielmo), Zachary Devin (Ferrando), and Maud Millar (Fiordiligi)

The production utilizes an English translation by Martin Fitzpatrick, tweaked here and there to reference the 1940s situation. It is beautifully idiomatic and faithful to the music’s rhythms; this, in combination with the clear articulation of the singers, made it remarkably easy to hear almost every word. And it was worth paying attention, for line after line had the audience indulging not just in polite chortles but unrestrained hilarity. Two examples from Despina: “What do you think your lovers will do on ‘active service’?”; “Eat up the pasta, but leave room for the salami!” Examples of sensitive modernizing include Ferrando and Guglielmo telling Don Alfonso “You’re a bitter old cynic. / You should be in a clinic” and “I think we’ll hit the jackpot.” One line which caught everyone’s attention was Guglielmo’s describing Fiordiligi as a “faithless, double-crossing, deceitful, lying bitch!” While Italian “cagna” does translate as “bitch,” in the original it is merely the last in a string of nouns, some of them rather past their sell-by date. The piling up of adjectives in the English made the b-word far more emphatic; the fact that it seemed more likely to be spoken by Guglielmo’s assumed American character made the rhetorical moment a memorable coup de théâtre.

The thoroughly entertaining and easily accessible dialogue, the irresistible buffoonery surrounding the “American” imposture, the well-judged, hammy performances by the sisters, who gave the general impression of feeling lucky that they had men at all, let alone two each, and the bounce and verve which Hampstead Garden Opera brought to the whole performance, made it difficult to remember that Mozartean opera is often disparaged as an elitist pastime even by people who like Shakespeare, or who will queue in the rain for a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. There was nothing elitist about this production. It was popular Mozart, but not dumbed down Mozart, and in fact more intellectually engaging than many a “classic” production in the original language. (When he directed a landmark Magic Flute in English in 1911, Edward Dent argued that there were no limits to the potential popularity of Mozartean opera in Britain, provided it were performed in good translations — I’m now convinced he was right.) A glance around the utterly unpretentious Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre revealed a very diverse audience of the young and old, fashionable and unfashionable, and (I would guess) very different income levels. A deep and unforced sense of pleasure appeared to be general.

In productions like this, put together on shoestring budgets, goodwill and enthusiasm, it is of course unreasonable to expect the very highest musical standards. But that acknowledged, the level was remarkably high, and one would have needed a fastidious ear or uncompromising “professional” standard to go home feeling unsatisfied. The six principals were all outstanding, and if their singing tended to the robust rather than the subtle, this fitted the generally spirited nature of the production. They all possessed a strong stage presence, displayed fine acting skills, and brought an infectious zest to everything they did.

A4018.gifZachary Devin (Ferrando), Henry Manning (Guglielmo, and Sarah Denbee (Dorabella)

The musical director was Dorian Komanoff Bandy, who has undertaken extensive research into historical performance practices in Mozart’s operas and brings the results to this particular production. I can do no better than quote his own account: “In our production of Così, we see the musical text not as a finished document, but as a starting point. True to 18th-century practices, cadenzas will be fitted to the individual singers, and will vary with each performance. Ornamentation will likewise be mostly unpremeditated. Even my recitative continuo, which I will play on a fortepiano similar to Mozart’s, will be active and pervasive, participating in the dramatic action rather than accompanying it. (Would Mozart, the great showman, have sat idly at the keyboard and strummed chords only at cadences?)” I am not qualified to comment on the historical claims made here, but there was no arguing with the fact that the approach brought the music to life in a way which suited the production perfectly. Komanoff Bandy’s palpable passion for what he was doing matched that of the principals on stage, and he secured some very fine playing from his little orchestra. Tempos were fast, but not excessively so, and the music bristled with energy, conveying a general sense of urgency and agitation appropriate to the unstable wartime scenario. This was not the “Classical” or even the “Romantic” Mozart, but it was an unquestionably theatrical Mozart.

It is worth adding, in conclusion, that Hampstead Garden Opera, founded in 1990, has always had a special affinity for Mozart. In fact the company was established specifically with a view to performing his operas, and though they have gone on to explore the works of many other composers, they have kept returning to Mozart. But in the past they have focused mainly on Don Giovanni, Figaro, and The Magic Flute. This is only the second time they have presented Così fan tutte, making it all the more praiseworthy that they have pulled off such a bold and successful reinterpretation.

David Chandler


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):