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.



Renée Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]
14 Dec 2012

Vienna: the window to modernity

This recital, which focused on a narrowly specific time and place — 1888-1933 Vienna — paradoxically illuminated not only the musical scope and richness of that epoch but also, as Renée Fleming notes in her prefatory programme article, the extraordinary extent of the diversity, transformation and flux, both historical and cultural, that characterised the era.

Vienna: the window to modernity

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Renée Fleming [Photo by Andrew Eccles courtesy of Decca]


Selecting five composers “whose tracks were closely linked” — personally, musically and influentially — Fleming began with Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, both born in 1860 and students of Robert Fuchs at the Vienna Academy of Music, but whose music developed in divergent ways.

Wolf’s Goethe Lieder began quite conservatively, though relaxed and discursive in delivery. Although a little subdued and restrained, Fleming conjured a pastoral sweetness in ‘Frühlings übers Jahr’ (‘Spring all year round’) and ‘Gleich und gleich’ (‘Like to like’). Her trademark generous legato helped to establish an easy ambience, strolling through meadows where ‘snow-white snowdrop bells are swaying’ and ‘crocuses unfold their intense glow’; yet while the elision of consonants may have aided the luxurious tone and silky sinuousness, occasionally the trademark portamenti took one liberty too many.

Pianist Maciej Pikulski’s understated accompaniment — delicate, suggestive, airy — was surprisingly effective in complementing the rhythmic freedom and tonal blossoming of the voice; this was particularly noticeable in ‘Die Bekehrte’ (‘The repentant shepherdess’), where Pikulski’s unassuming yet sensitive traceries contributed much to the mood of modest ruefulness. In ‘Anakreons Grab’ (‘Anacreaon’s grave’) the performers communicated an affecting meditative tranquillity.

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder followed. In these songs we see the Mahler who looks within himself for answers to twentieth-century crises — personal, musical, social and political; and Fleming’s approach - more concerned for the overall musical line than in small nuances of text — is well-suited to music which offers a full and intense expression of personality. Growing from the delicate whisperings of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’ (‘I breathed a gentle scent’), Fleming gradually extended her range of colour; in ‘Mitternacht’ she vividly invested the repetitions of the title with deeply evocative hues. Voice and piano, both remarkably restrained, conversed intimately in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), and produced a disquieting ‘peace’ in the final verse, the sound palely dissolving with the line ‘Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!’ (‘And I rest in a quiet realm’).

I had not been convinced during the Wolf and Mahler that the expanse of the Barbican Hall, even when bathed in a glossy pink glow, was truly the most appropriate venue for these intimate lieder. However, in the second half of the recital, which began with Schoenberg and moved on to Zemlinsky and Korngold, the spaciousness was filled with Fleming’s blooming gleam, the size of the venue granting her the amplitude and resonance required to commit fully to the music’s grandiose emotional outbursts.

Fleming offered helpful introductions to the sometimes challenging music offered, engaging her audience directly, although Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Op.2 No.1 (not to be confused with the later melodrama of the same title), a setting of a Richard Dehmel poem describing the sexual anticipation of two lovers, and Jane Grey Op.12, an ardent ballad telling of the fate of the young woman who ruled England for just nine days in 1553, needed no ‘justification’. This is music of pained intensity, and Fleming conveyed the narratives directly and with emotional freedom. Pikulski contributed considerably to the melancholic poise which tempered the animation of the emotional tales.

Zemlinsky’s Fünf Lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel are more enigmatic, but Fleming’s legato sheen did much to bring coherence to these ambiguous fragments. Bitterly chromatic and characterised by unexpected harmonic twists, these songs, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime, seem determined to retain their secrets; they may have been prompted by Zemlinsky’s disquiet at the affair between his sister Mathilde, who was married to Schoenberg, and the painter Richard Gerstl, who later committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband in 1908. Fleming’s confident, accurate rendering offered a route to understanding while never destroying their mystery.

Fleming concluded her Viennese sojourn with the music Erich Korngold. The broadly elegiac chromaticisms of ‘Sterbelied’, a setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am Dead’ — but, why did the programme present a rather lifeless re-translation of the German version of the original, rather than Rossetti’s original poem? — blossomed into the spacious lines of ‘Was du mir bist?’ (‘What are you to me?’), where Fleming’s expansiveness at the top was finally indulged in astonishing blooms of wonderful sound, a paradox of weight and ethereality. Here, Fleming demonstrated how she can release the fullness of her voice at the moment when the text demands but, like an emotional ambush, still catch us unawares. Concluding the Korngold sequence, the composer’s take on Johann Strauss II’s waltz, ‘Frag mich off’ (‘I often wonder’), allowed Fleming to indulge her kitschier, melodramatic instincts.

The omission of Fleming’s beloved Richard Strauss was remedied in the first of three encores, ‘Zueignung’, which was effortlessly gleaming and luminous. Delibes’ ‘Les Filles de Cadix’ was, Fleming declared, designed as a sorbet to refresh the palette after “too much sachertorte”. The trills were perhaps less tight and tremulous than of old, but the elevated vocalism just as winning: embarking upon the wrong verse text, Fleming offered a nonchalant shrug, set off again and won a round of applause! Korngold’s ‘Mariettas lied’ from Die tote Stadt signed off a consummate display of musical artistry and eloquent communication. Pikulski’s playing in the closing bars was exquisitely graceful and charmingly tender.

So much for the music; glorious as it was, at times it was at risk of being over-shadowed by ‘The Diva’. The avidly warm welcoming reception, the statuesque frocks — an extravagant golden silk confection garnered the pseudo-apology, ‘I wanted you to get the Klimt connection’ — the insouciant banter and the rapturous standing ovation all indicated that a ‘star’ had alighted.

But, she deserved the adulation and the rapturous standing ovation: it was clear that she could ask her voice to do whatever she willed, confident that the result would be technically masterful yet seem effortlessly articulated.

Just one tiny, humble, suggestion: if your feet can’t be seen beneath the taffeta fanfares, there’s no point crippling yourself in tottering, un-walkable Louboutins — when you sing this gloriously, flat pumps will do!

Claire Seymour

Click here for the programme and other information relating to this recital

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):