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.
27 Jun 2012
Les Troyens, Royal Opera House London
A sensational Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House, London. Berlioz, who understood theatrical gestures so well, builds his opera around the most audacious dramatic device in ancient history: the Trojan Horse.
The population of Troy delights in the spectacle, but then all hell breaks loose and the city is destroyed. David McVicar’s new production is similarly audacious. The orchestra roars full tilt. Even the instrumentation is extravagant — the ophicleide wails like a strange monster. Then the Horse looms into view, moving in a surprisingly realistic way. its eyes shining as if the creature were alive, which adds a poignant twist.
Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra
The Greeks and Trojans had much in common with the age of Napoleon III. David McVicar and his team (Es Devlin, Moritz Junge, Wolgang Göbbel) brilliantly capture the expansive, extravagant spirit of Berlioz’s time. France at its imperial peak, colonizing Africa and Asia. Paris was being rebuilt on a grand scale. Berlioz wasn’t doing history re-enactment but writing to stun Paris with its audacity. His orchestration isn’t the music of antiquity, but the most advanced and adventurous of its time. Berlioz isn’t doing history re-enactment, and his audiences interpreted Virgil through the filters of Claude and Poussin.
Grecian pottery depicts figures with minimal background: in Berlioz, the background is extreme and densely textured. The principals and secondary parts have to be strongly cast to stand out. Berlioz writes psychological depth in the music rather than in the text, so a strong casting and good direction are of the essence. At The Royal Opera House, the singing and acting was superb, thus expanding the spirit of the roles for maximum dramatic impact.
Bryan Hymel as Aeneas
Anna Caterina Antonacci created the part of Cassandre with John Eliot Gardiner in Paris in 2003. She’s pitted, alone, against the hysteria in the chorus, and the militaristic violence in the orchestra, but her voice holds its own and soars through with dark intensity. Cassandre and Chorèbe (Fabio Capitanucci) are counterparts to Didon and Énée, but Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon and Bryan Hymel’s Enée were more than a match for the sheer passion of their characterization.
Eva-Marie Westbroek sang Cassandre in the Amsterdam Les Troyens in 2011 (Pierre Audi). She’s also a natural for the warm, happy Didon we see in Carthage (the desert city brilliantly depicted in multi dimensions so we get a sense of its teeming activity). This throws her portrayal of Didon’s extreme grief into sharp relief. When Westbroek sings of her anguish, the set is bare but for blue-grey curtain, the staging speaking for her as much as the orchestration. Westbroek’s such a sympathetic Didon, we feel her agony.
Bryan Hymel sang Énée in the Amsterdam production last year, and brings experience to the role. Anyone who bought tickets expecting Jonas Kaufmann would not have been disappointed. If anything, Hymel’s bright lyric tenor suits the part better. In the duet “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie!” he conveyed such beauty and sensitivity that he fleshed out the action man hero side of Énée, and the role became a real personality. Hymel’s Farewell aria was stunning, and ended with an exuberant flourish that was both heroic and tragic. The audience burst into spontaneous applause for the first time. Some audiences clap at anything, but this audience was far more sophisticated. You don’t do a demanding five-hour opera unless you really care. Hymel is still only 32, and has years of potential ahead.
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido and Hanna Hipp as Anna
Brindley Sherratt’s Nabal was powerful, setting the opera in context. Duty, fate and tragedy, love cannot compete except in death. Also outstanding was Ji-min Park as Iopas, singing the plangently lovely “O Blonde Cérès”. Park is only two years out of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme but a singer who should go far. Indeed, all the singing and acting was top notch, the entire cast on message, the chorus well blocked and expressive.
Coming from a background in Berlioz songs, I can’t bear the bombast some like in Les Troyens, but Antonio Pappano’s approach is more perceptive. He understand that what makes this opera work is its variety. Berlioz is flashing his virtuosity. The carnage music must be strident, but Berlioz writes music of surprising delicacy, and even humour. Pappano characterized the ballet scenes sensitively. These are important, not mere filler, for they set the context of the opera. Berlioz’s Paris audiences would have liked this exotic orientalism had they heard it, for it fitted their image of themselves as rulers of North Africa and beyond. Wisely, McVicar and his team used the exotic theme in the set, where the “world” (ie the model of Carthage) floats in a magical cosmos of blue, green and red light, illuminated by stars. Perfect union of music, staging and meaning.
This Berlioz Les Troyens is an experience no-one should miss. Alas, performances are sold out solid and you might have to pay way over the odds to get in. Luckily, it’s being filmed and will be in cinemas in November and hopefully out on DVD. it’s a milestone for the Royal Opera House and they’d be mad not to revive it soon. View it live on Mezzo TV on 5th July here and listen to the Proms semi-staging on 22nd July.
Scene from Les Troyens