Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
21 May 2013
Gareth John, Wigmore Hall
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This Wigmore Hall recital, with pianist Matthew Fletcher,
presented a varied programme and revealed a confident and technically
We began with Schubert, four settings of Mayrhofer and one by Heine which
share a ‘watery’ theme. Fletcher’s exuberant opening hurled us straight
into the wind and storm of ‘Der Schiffer’ (‘The Skipper’) as the
protagonist battles with the teaming rain and lashing waves. John’s strong
voice was a more than equal match for the turbulent weather and waves; the tone
was, however, rather unyielding at times and it took a little while for the
intonation to settle. In ‘Der Strom’ (‘The Stream’), the baritone used
the text effectively, the expression ardent and moving. Best of the bunch was
‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (‘How Ulfru fishes’); here John found a wider tonal
palette which he used to inject drama into the battle of wits between man and
fish. Some intelligent, controlled rubato in the final stanza
initiated a more meditative mood, as the poet-speaker reflects on the brevity
and unpredictability of life: “Die Erde ist gewaltig schön,/ Doch sicher ist
sie nicht” (“The world is certainly beautiful/, But safe, it is not”).
Fletcher was alert to textural details and the accompaniment enhanced both
the mood and the narrative of the poetry. In ‘Auf der Donau’ the rapid
left-hand motifs were deftly articulated, imitating the rippling waves, while
at the close a more lyrical mood captured the prevailing melancholy and
A well-shaped performance of ‘Nachtstck’ (‘Nocturne’) concluded the
Schubert sequence, throughout which John’s accurate delivery of the text was
exemplary. He produced a consistently clear vocal line too. It’s a big voice,
and a warm one, with a very full, rich sound; the tone is evenly sustained
across the range, with exceptionally focused lower register. Now, more
diversity of tone, colour and weight would add even greater nuance and
An earnest, urgent reading of ‘Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze!’
(‘How lovely to love in spring!’) initiated a series of songs by Johannes
Brahms. The powerful assertion of this opening song contrasted with the
poignant softness of the yearning lover’s reflection, “Keine Ferne kann es
heilen,/ Nu rein holder Blick von dir” (“No distance can heal it,/ Only a
loving glance from you”) in ‘And den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), where the
rich shimmering accompaniment effectively delineated the silvery, shimmering
rays of the moon.
‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘Willst du, daß ich geh’?’
(‘Do you want me to go?’) were both characterised by fervour and passion,
the vocal phrases well-crafted, the accompaniment full of drama and energy. In
contrast, ‘Geheimnis’ (‘Secret’) was wonderfully tender, John using
registral contrasts to exploit different colours which were complemented by the
arpeggiated accompaniment. The performers captured the folk-like simplicity of
‘Sonntag’ (‘Sunday’), making much of the brief, pianissimo
twist to the minor mode. The final stanza of ‘Da unten im Tale’ was
similarly poignant and contemplative, as the poet-speaker poignantly wishes his
former love farewell: “Un I wünsch, daß dir’s anderswo/ Besser mag
gehn” (“And wish that elsewhere/ You might fare better”).
The second half of the recital moved from the nineteenth to the twentieth
century, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,
a set of three songs (‘Chanson romanesque’, ‘chanson épique’ and
‘chanson à boire’). This was the last work that Ravel completed before his
death in 1937. Each song employs a different Spanish dance rhythm to portray
Don Quixote as first a noble lover, then a devout soldier and finally a
raucous, rabble-rousing drinker. Fletcher’s accompaniment was full of Iberian
fluidity and charm, although John’s French was less idiomatic than his
flawless German and his voice a little too weighty and unbending to capture the
spontaneity and impulsiveness of the madcap Quixote.
John’s rendering of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel was
a noteworthy element of his winning Kathleen Ferrier Award performance, and to
conclude the programme he offered an incisive and vigorous account of these
R.L. Stevenson settings, one which consistently emphasised the freshness of the
texts. ‘The Vagabond’ established a driving momentum, but in ‘Let Beauty
Awake’ John’s vocal line unfolded more gently above the piano’s
arabesques. The final verse of ‘The Roadside Fire’ was delightfully
expansive, as the traveller reflects on the private moments that he and his
beloved will share: “And this shall be for music when no one else is near,/
The fine song for singing, the rare song tor hear.”
An uplifting airiness characterised ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’, the
supple undulations of the accompaniment creating a magical soundscape
suggesting the “Uncountable angel stars/ Showering sorrow and light”. John
conveyed a true sense of enchantment and wonder in the final lines: “Til lo!
I looked in the dusk / And a star had come down to me.” The strophic
repetitions of ‘Wither Must I Wander?’ reminded us of the headlong march of
the opening song, but here the journey onwards was tinged with sadness in
recognition that while “Spring shall come, come again”, for the traveller
the past will never be re-visited: “But I go for ever and come again no
more.” John countered this sorrow in the following ‘Bright’, the
declamation of the title word ringing with hope and positivity. The concluding
‘I have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope’, with its arioso
recollections of fragments of the preceding songs, brought the recital to an
affecting, moving close.
Schubert: ‘Der Schiffer’, ‘Auf der Donau’, ‘Der Strom’,
‘Das Dischermädchen’, ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’, ‘Nachtstück’; Brahms:
Fünf Gesänge Op.71, ‘Sonntag’, selection from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder;
Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; Vaughan Williams: Songs of
Travel. Gareth John, baritone; Matthew Fletcher piano. Wigmore Hall,
London, Thursday, 16th May 2013.