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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.

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.



Angela Denoke as Salome [Photo © ROH 2012 / Clive Barda]
04 Jun 2012

Salome, Royal Opera

In David McVicar’s staging of Strauss’s disturbing opera, first seen at Covent Garden in 2008 and now enjoying its second revival, Salome’s descent down the Stygian staircase is a literal drop into a subterranean slaughterhouse and an ethical fall into the delights and depravity of her of burgeoning yet deadly sexuality.

Richard Strauss: Salome

Salome: Angela Denoke; Jokanaan: Egils Silins; Narraboth: Will Hartmann; Herod: Stig Andersen; Herodias: Rosalind Plowright; First Soldier: Scott Wilde; Second Soldier: Alan Ewing; First Jew: Peter Bronder; Second Jew: Hubert Francis; Third Jew: Timothy Robinson; Fourth Jew: Pablo Bemsch; Fifth Jew: Jeremy White; First Nazarene: Andrew Greenan; Second Nazarene: ZhengZhong Zhou; Page: Sarah Castle; Cappadocian: John Cunningham; Slave: Madeleine Pierard. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Director: David McVicar. Revival Director: Bárbara Lluch. Designer: Es Devlin. Lighting design: Wolfgang Göbbel. Choreography: Andrew George. Revival Choreographer: Emily Piercy. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday, 31 May 2012.

Above: Angela Denoke as Salome

Photos © ROH 2012 / Clive Barda


This is a Salome who is less interested in the bodily pleasures offered by the pure masculinity of Jokanaan than in the narcissistic celebration of her own vicious carnality. And, Angela Denoke is just the singer-actress to convey the princess’s escalating self-awareness and indulgence in emotional extremities. Denoke, returning as Salome after her performance in the production’s 2010 revival, may not have had the requisite consistent sheen at the top, and indeed may have struggled at times to hit the uppermost notes truly and securely — who wouldn’t given the unalleviated high tessitura? — but she possesses an emotional sincerity, communicated through an infinite variety of colours, shades and shadows, which wins the hearts and minds of the audience. Slightly tense at the start, she went from strength to strength: the final statement of her insistent demand, “Give me the head of Jokanaan”, was truly chilling in its honest exposure of human egoism; and in the final scene, as she cradled the bloodied head of the prophet, at times tender, then terrifyingly solipsistic, she communicated powerfully the destructive yet vulnerable self-regard of the eponymous anti-heroine before her thankfully inevitable death.

SALOME 120528_0202.pngStig Andersen as Herod and Rosalind Plowright as Herodias

As the ill-fated prophet, subjected to incarceration in the unfathomable depths of Herod’s subterranean prison, Egils Silins’ bass has the necessary biblical profundity to lend sonorous weight and resonance to his visionary pronouncements, which rise through the black grid of internment like clarion calls to humanity in the face of the wickedness to which it has submitted. Unfortunately, his perhaps understandably self-absorbed characterisation resulted in absolutely no erotic tension between Silins and Denoke; nor a real sense of the prophetic power which might strike such fear in the heart of Herod. And, as Jokanaan strode back and forth across the stage, fleeing Salome’s flirtatious advances, one wondered why the guards melodramatically traced his movements with their rifles given Herod’s command that the prophet must not be harmed. Surely none would risk such suicidal recklessness?

Stig Anderson, as Herod, used his resonance and power intelligently. There was no doubting his stentorian dominance and brutality when he unleashed his full force, but elsewhere his weak hesitancy was effectively conveyed.

Rosalind Plowright was a persuasive, vocally secure Herodias, sufficiently sumptuous to make her a convincing object of Herod’s desire, but not afraid to add a touch of roughness or harsh extremity to convey the Queen’s desperation to maintain her husband’s admiring gaze and her delight in capitalising on his weakness. Her relationship with her daughter was appropriately ambiguous.

The minor roles were performed with uniform accomplishment. The beautiful warmth of tone of Will Hartman’s Narraboth poignantly conveyed the purity of his transfixion in the face of Salome’s beauty; indeed, the understated portrayal of his death seemed a dramatic injustice. As the First and Second Soldiers, Scott Wilde and Alan Ewing were resonant and clear; similarly, Peter Bronder, as the first Jew, and Andrew Greenan, as the first Nazarene, were vocally and dramatically compelling.

SALOME 120528_0145.pngEgils Silins as Jokanaan and Angela Denoke as Salome

Andris Nelsons conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a thrilling, precise yet disquieting rendition of Strauss’s provocatively extrovert score. Solo lines emerged effortlessly from the luxuriant orchestral canvas. The seductive harmonies which foreshadow Rosenkavier — employed therein to depict exuberant sexual freedom, piquant desire and joyful satisfaction — were here bitterly destabilized by disconcerting instrumental colours textures and extremity of register, which Nelsons exploited to perfection. The conductor perfectly balanced measure and excess, liberation and control. His ability to restrain his naturally exuberant forces until precise moments of erotic release was nowhere more evident than in the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Oddly, here, McVicar eschews an erotic depiction of Salome’s growing appreciation of the power ordained by her beauty and nascent sexuality; rather we have a series of remarkably chaste, dream-like tableaux as Salome is relentlessly pursued through a series of chambers by Herod, her movements and gestures suggestive of an increasing interiority and introspection (à la Freud?). That is, until the final image portentous of imminent — or retrospective — rape.

There are many McVicarian clichés — gratuitous nudity, excessive blood-letting etc. etc. — but, while some have found some aspects of the production (the Nazi uniforms of the subterranean warders, for example) unduly specific and contradictory to Wilde’s somewhat stylised, even mythic, timelessness, to me they seemed true to the era in which Strauss composed his opera — when man’s appalling sadism was shortly to be revealed in its full horror. Es Devlin’s split-level designs — we are afforded glimpse of blasé banqueting diners loftily removed from the debasing debauchery below — effectively intimate the hypocrisy of the indifferent, and the shared culpability of all mankind. And, at the close, even the naked executioner Naaman (Duncan Meadows) is unable to overcome his disgust and turns his back upon the repellently orgasmic Salome, until required to fulfil Herod’s command to “Kill that woman!”; savagely breaking her neck, he conveniently relieves our own disgust and, thankfully, breaks our hypnotic absorption with Salome’s repulsive yet mesmerising self-glorification.

To some extent it is probably true that modern opera audiences, immune to the gore, nudity, depravity and gratuitous degeneracy regularly served up by directors, are largely unshockable. Yet, this listener for one experienced nauseating terror in the face of the dreadfulness of Wilde’s and Strauss’s disclosure of humanity’s inhumanity; a terror resulting less from the gruesome specificity of McVicar’s reading than from its suggestion of man’s ubiquitous amorality and cruelty — rendered supremely, and ironically, by Strauss’s painfully beautiful musical portrait.

Claire Seymour

SALOME 120528_0320.pngAngela Denoke as Salome, Stig Andersen as Herod and Rosalind Plowright as Herodias

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