Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.



The Southbank Centre
11 Feb 2013

Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

This concert was part of a greater weekend of concerts at the Southbank Centre looking at Paris during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the weekend itself part of the year-long Rest is Noise season.

Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

A review by Mark Berry

Above: The Southbank Centre


An arresting opening — which I initially feared would irritate, but which actually worked very well — was provided by Harriet Walter’s narration, replete with East Coast accent, presenting a first-person sketch, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, of the life of Winnaretta Singer. Daughter of the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Singer, Winnaretta went on to become the celebrated musical patroness, Princess Edmund de Polignac, commissioning both Socrate and Renard, though Diaghilev’s machinations and Stravinsky’s duplicity — at least according to this account — meant that her salon would not host the latter work’s premiere. Walter’s delivery of the script was just as excellent as one would expect from this fine actress: never overdone, effortlessly convincing. I wondered a little about the Princess’s, or rather Wertenbaker’s, claim that patrons go unsung. Not in my lectures they do not; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I over-emphasise their role. I also wondered whether a male patron would have received quite so sympathetic a treatment: might we not at least have been led to think, ‘why should someone inherit all that money in the first place?’ But those are quibbles, and the narration, heard before Socrate and before Renard seemed to go down well with the audience.

Satie’s Socrate: oh dear. I tried; I really did. Doubtless some will say that was the problem. But for me, its sole redeeming feature was the excellence of the performances from Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw. Cool, white, monotonous, with the occasional subtle colouring of the vocal line: soprano and pianist were really beyond reproach. However, a work, like so much of Satie, which seems set up to forestall criticism — whatever you say against it, someone will respone, ‘well that is the point’ — had better be of Stravinskian quality if, as, for instance The Rake’s Progress does, it attempts that disabling tactic. Frankly, it makes one long even for the dullest of Stravinsky: Apollo, or Orpheus, say. Its lengthy ‘setting’ of Plato — is it really a ‘setting’ at all, when it seems to respond no more to the text than Rossini does in much of his Stabat Mater? — droans on and on, until, by the time the third part, ‘La Mort de Socrate’ opens, one feels as if one has been suffering the same composer’s Vexations. What a strange conception of ancient Greece this is; it almost makes one sympathise with Nietzsche’s venom against Socrates. The artists, admirably controlled throughout, made the most of the slight suggestion of drama as we heard of the poison’s arrival, but if the best one can say about something is that it is somewhat less tedious than the music of Philip Glass, perhaps it is time to wonder whether Satie has an Emperor, let alone clothes.

Stravinsky’s invention thus struck the hall like a thunderbolt. It always does, at least in good performances, and these performances were certainly that. A string quartet (Jonathan Morton, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Tim Gill, all standing save for the cellist) drawn from the London Sinfonietta brought us the composer’s astonishing Three Pieces. The work’s strangeness, its utter dissociation from anything one might consider to constitute a string quartet repertoire and tradition still shocks — and certainly did so here. Defiantly post-Rite of Spring, this is in many senses a far more radical break with ‘tradition’, as unique as Le Roi des étoiles. Tightly focused rhythms and — as soon as one bothered to listen — a profusion of melody were hallmarks of this account. The final piece brought a sense of the hieratic, but what a contrast it made with the mere tedium of Satie. Here was music. Timothy Lines offered strong performances of the Three Pieces for clarinet, written five years later in 1919. If the first offered a gentler, one is almost tempted to say pastoral, sound-world, it remained utterly Stravinskian in its evident ‘construction’. And in any case, there was nothing remotely gentle about its joyous successor, nor to the third, which seemed to anticipate the world of Renard. The performance was rich in tonal and dynamic differentiation, rhythm propelling the notes and their ‘meaning’. The 1920 Concertino for string quartet followed, though oddly the programme had no notes on it. Again, the utterly individual approach of the composer not only to the medium of the string quartet but to stringed instruments themselves was immediately announced. A kaleidoscope of what Stravinsky would have hated one to call ‘moods’ — unless, of course, he arbitrarily decided to use the word, as in his Norwegian Moods — revealed itself during the work’s brief span. Here was concision to rival Webern, yet long before Stravinsky’s serialist turn. It sounded almost akin to a mechanised Beethoven Bagatelle.

Hannigan turned director for the wonderful burlesque, Renard, given in concert performance, Colour and rhythm were very much to the fore in a performance for which she seemed to act more as enabler than dictator. Old Stravinsky hands that the London Sinfonietta are, that is doubtless the right way around. Thematic consistency during and after the opening March was especially noteworthy; this was no mere collection of episodes. Even when the Cock turned languid, ‘Sizhu na dubu...’ (‘I’m on my perch...’), rhythmic underpinning remained tight. There was room for seduction too, from the Fox with his cake. But above all what struck was the visceral nature of Stravinsky’s score, so truthful a representation of the or at least a childhood imagination. The London Sinfonietta’s performance could not be faulted; the four vocal soloists proved fine advocates too. If the tenors perhaps captured greater attention, that is probably more a reflection of score than performance. Why do we not hear this work more often?

Mark Berry

Satie: Socrate; Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, Three Pieces for clarinet, Concertino, Renard.

Barbara Hannigan (soprano/director), Daniel Norman (tenor); Edgaras Montvidas (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); John Molloy (bass); Reinbert de Leeuw (piano); Timothy Lines (clarinet); Harriet Walter (narrator);Timberlake Wertenbaker (script writer); London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 10 February 2013.

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):