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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.



02 Feb 2013

A Timeless Hänsel und Gretel in Chicago

In remounting its 2001 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel Lyric Opera of Chicago has demonstrated the timeless nature of the score and narrative as well as the ingenuity of the production with its thoughtful and touching updating to a twentieth-century milieu.

The title roles were sung by Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova, the Mother and Father by Julie Makerov and Brian Mulligan, the Witch by Jill Grove, and the Sandman and Dew Fairy by Emily Birsan and Kiri Deonarine. Ward Stare led these performances in his Lyric Opera conducting debut.

In its performance of the overture the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Stare’s sensitive direction exemplified the rich colors and tonal depth of Humperdinck’s score. The initial chords for brass were effectively varied and, when repeated, punctuated by melodic emphases in the strings and percussion. Toward the close of this prelude the softer instrumental textures as here played suggested an age that would follow on the trials of human effort. During the course of the overture the stage was veiled by a scrim depicting an empty plate and utensils. Once the first act begins in this production, the significance of the image becomes clear. The children Hänsel and Gretel face each other while seated at the kitchen’s table. Both Ms. DeShong and Ms. Kanyova communicated a temperament of adolescent irritation coupled with human need. The children are hungry and their facial expressions revealed attempts to deal with their current isolation. The parents have gone off to procure food and have left Hänsel and Gretel with the responsibility of domestic chores. Of course little work is accomplished and their vocal exchanges were more expressive of self-amusement. After a tantalizing melisma performed on “Geheimnis” [“secret”] Kanyova’s Gretel instructed her brother in proper dance steps [“Einmal hin, einmal her”]. While DeShong’s Hänsel proclaimed in a truly joyful spirit that he was committed to “Tanzen und fröhlich sein” [“Dancing and happiness”], the antics of the children reached a crescendo from the floor to the top of the table. At this highpoint the mother returned and chided the two for their irresponsible behavior. Ms. Makerov released powerfully emotional pitches on “Sorgen” while describing these very worries caused by financial hardship. Since the children seem unable to appreciate the family’s plight, the mother sends them out to the forest in search of berries for an evening meal. When left alone Makerov gave full vent to her emotions with expressive yet controlled volume on “Kein Essen im Schrank” [“No food in the cupboard”]. As she prepared to take pills as a means to calming her mid-century nervousness, the voice of the father signals his approach in the familiar “Tra la la la … Hunger ist der beste Koch” [“Hunger is the best cook”]. Mr. Mulligan’s entrance was a model of lyrical and dramatic commitment to character. He sang with robust emphasis on “Kauf Besen” [“Buy brooms”] to explain how he encouraged his customers of the day to buy up his wares. As if to celebrate his financial success the father displayed the foodstuffs which he had purchased for the common meal. Once the parents begin to eat, the mother admits that she has sent the children out alone into the forest. The father berates her carelessness while frightening her with tales of evil in the haunted wood. Mulligan dominated the close of this first act with his noteworthy intonation describing the “Hexenritt” [“witches’ ride”] practiced in the forest.

The orchestral introduction to Act Two with an emphasis on cellos and higher strings matched the calming yet inquisitive mood in the forest as the children searched for and consumed the berries they found. DeShong’s Hänsel accused with striking low notes “Du bist selber schuld” [“It is really your fault”] as they discover that they have eaten their entire yield. After Hänsel claimed “Ich bin ein Bub und fürchte mich nicht” [I am a boy and am not afraid”], both children became apprehensive of their surroundings. In this production Hänsel assumes a protective gesture toward his sister as they sing their evening prayer “Abends will ich schlafen gehen” [“At night I lay myself to sleep”]. Kanyova and DeShong gave a wonderfully moving rendition of the duet, as the Sandmann then lulled them into sleep. The “two times seven angels,” to whom they have prayed, are here visualized in their dreams as servants and cooks at the table to which the children are invited after being helped into properly formal attire. At the close of the act Hänsel and Gretel are served as guests at table by these creatures with wings of angels.

The third act of the opera displays the plate on the scrim now covered more noticeably with red as indication of the berries consumed. Kanyova’s bird-like song with which she awakened Hänsel was sprightly and infused with coloratura touches. As the children compared notes about the angels seen in their respective dreams, an enormous cake emerged from the back of the stage. Gretel is the first to sample the cake until both children hear the voice of the witch, Rosina Leckermaul [aka, Rosina Sweet-tooth] In this role Jill Grove wore a housedress and embodied the busyness of a German domestic yet with the powers and desires associated with magic and evil. Grove caused Hänsel to freeze in movement with her chilling performance of the scene “Hocus, Pocus.” When she prepared food to fatten up the boy, Ms. Grove dived into her pots and bowls with gusto and noticeably energetic voice and arms. Gretel realizes that the magical phrase will release her brother, after which both push the witch into the oven. The subsequent, celebratory waltz for the siblings was well choreographed in preparation for saving the remaining children, who had been held as gingerbread under the witch’s spell. Recitation now of the “Hocus, Pocus” charm restores the children’s sight, the parents appear in the forest, and the family is reunited in prayers of thanksgiving. May future productions of Humperdinck’s work succeed to this degree.

Salvatore Calomino

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