Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

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.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s fifteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.

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.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.

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.



Frederick Delius, Jelka Rosen (1868-1935)
11 Aug 2012

Edinburgh International Festival - Delius, A Mass of Life

The Edinburgh International Festival got off to a rousing start with Frederick Delius, A Mass of Life, rarely heard because it's scored for huge forces.

Frederick Delius - A Mass of Life

Anna Christy - soprano, Pamela Helen Stephen - mezzo-soprano, Robert Hardy - tenor, Hanno Muller-Brachmann - baritone, Royal National Scottish Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Sir Andrew Davis - conductor, Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10th August 2012


This choice in Edinburgh is a brave tribute to the composer in this anniversary year. Like Bernstein's Mass, heard earlier this week at the Proms, this work is not a Mass in the conventional sense, but a celebration of life from a humanist perspective; Delius uses texts from Nietzsche's Also Spach Zarathustra. This link gives notes on the work by Eric Fenby, amanuensis to the composer, who was a uniquely well placed commentator. There is also on the same page commentary by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who was an early champion of Delius. Last night's concert also had the distinction of being the only performance in the anniversary year of this rarely performed work which calls for massive forces.

This opening concert of the Edinburgh International Festival saw the well-loved English music specialist Sir Andrew Davis, best known perhaps for his Proms conducting as Chief Conductor of the the BBC Symphony Orchestra, return to these shores but this time to Scotland with the RNSO. He also conducted the South Bank centre's tribute to Delius in January this year They were joined by an international line-up of soloists and with Edinburgh's very own Festival Chorus, marking the combination of celebrating home-grown talent and attracting world-class stars which is the hallmark of the Edinburgh Festival. Sir Andrew received a very warm welcome from a capacity audience, and maintained seemingly effortless control over the mass of performers involved, the stage as well as the hall being absolutely packed.

As a work is important, not only in demonstrating writing for large forces as well as the well-known smaller works, but in setting out Delius' personal philosophy: it is something of a 'Credo' and this makes its title of a 'mass' make more sense, it otherwise arguably being an oratorio about the Nietzschian hero Zarathustra, who has also inspired Strauss. Having rejected conventional Christian beliefs, Delius was very influenced by Nietzsche. It is a work which is 'larger than life' in all senses.

Written in France and inspired by German writings, in both musical and philosophical terms, possibly more than any other single work of his, it argues against viewing Delius as an 'English' composer and instead seeing him as European / international in his influences and identity. The content of the lyrics calls to mind perhaps most readily Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy', but the most obvious musical reference is to Mahler's 'Wunderhorn' influenced large-scale works.

It is not often one thinks this space may be on the small side, but the piece opened with an effect which I can only describe as a 'wall of sound', a joyous blast surging out. This forceful opening broadens out into first an introductory recitative for male voice, with musical accompaniment of a sparkling character, calling to mind a brook running through a forest; and then a 'dance scene' to which all soloists contribute in turn, together with chorus. These, arguably the highlights of the performance, both strongly recall the soundworld of Mahler.

There is then a sudden shattering of the sunny mood, as night falls on this scene, and the hero cries, 'Woe is me' and confronts his own mortality. Here the change of mood was perhaps gradual rather than sudden, not quite having the dramatic tension which would have drawn out the change of mood with immediacy. The melancholy became much more apparent only later in this fourth scene, when in contemplating impending death, Zarathustra is tortured by visions of a spider spinning its web around his corpse.

The second half - which is set on the mountains rather than in the forest - is slower, and more reflective. The first, third and fourth sections have opening instrumental interludes which precede the entry of voices. These are charming in themselves, but also work well to refresh the listener between the musical and philosophical intensity of the sung sections. They perhaps bring a sound more instantly recognisable as Delian, idyllic and lyrical.

As the piece progresses, the baritone's role becomes larger, as he represents Zarathustra, a figure who is arguably semi-autobiographical for Delius, the work becoming in the second half more and more a recitative for him and the orchestra with occasional interjections from the other soloists and support from the chorus. The mood and pace of the opening return in the final section, which gathers pace leading to the unison 'Alle Lust will aller Dinge Ewigkeit' and building further to a triumphant close which then slips, almost Berg-like into the infinite 'Ewigkeit' (endless day).

Hanno Muller-Brachmann, who had the advantage of singing in his first language, was capable as the artist / hero /superman. However it is all the more noticeable that having less airtime and in some ways a lesser part, tenor Robert Murray's singing stood out as clear and incisive and I would single him out for particular commendation. Mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen has a golden honeyed voice which is a delight to listen to. She was in an eye-catching dress of impressionist colours, referencing a Monet garden and appropriate to the themes of the music. The festival chorus and the orchestral players are to be commended for their stamina in this musical marathon.

Juliet Williams

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):