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.



09 Jun 2013

Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group

“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.

Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Majella Cullagh [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]


This concert performance by the Chelsea Opera Group offered a rare opportunity to judge the work, which was allegedly described by the composer in later life as ‘ugly’, on its own merits.

Commissioned at the height of the frenetic activity which Verdi later termed his ‘galley years’, the premiere of Alzira on 12 August 1845 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, received a mixed reception. Verdi anxiously anticipated a hostile press, but hoped for a favourable reaction from the public: in the event, as Vincenzo Torelli reported at the time in the Neapolitan newspaper Omnibus, exaggerated applause for the overture by Verdi’s supporters goaded those less sympathetically inclined to an ever more cool response. Torelli urged Verdi to consider whether he was writing too much, too fast: “No human talent is capable of producing two or three grand operas a year.” Indeed, overwork had precipitated a breakdown of health which necessitated the postponement of the opening night; and, Verdi might have feared the fates were against him when his preferred soprano, Erminia Frezzolini, withdrew from the season to give birth.

If Verdi’s speed of composition was precipitously swift during these years, so is the action of Alzira. Salvatore Cammarone’s libretto attempts to whip Voltaire’s play, Alzire, ou les Américains — a largely philosophical dialogue — into an operatic love triangle, set in 16th-century Peru at the time of the Inca-Spanish conflict, complete with the mandatory mixture of passion, sexual rivalry, vengeance and death.

Alvaro, the Peruvian governor, is on the point of death at the hands of Otombo, when Zamoro — a Peruvian chieftain who had been believed dead — returns and grants the release of Alvaro, before urging his tribe to set forth for Lima to rescue his beloved Alzira, who, along with her father Ataliba, is being held captive by Alvaro’s son, Gusmano. The latter, promoted now by his father to the top job, falls for Alzira too; when Zamoro is seized in battle, she succumbs to Gusmano’s marriage proposal in exchange for preserving her true love’s life. Believe that she has betrayed him, a bitter Zamoro thunders into the matrimonial ceremony and stabs Gusmano. With his dying words, the young governor reveals his true nobility: explaining that Alzira acted to save Zamoro’s life, with his final breath he blesses the couple.

Gianluca Marciano.pngGianluca Marcianò [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]

Unfortunately, the plot goes round in circles; the hero is captured and condemned, then he is spared and freed, then seized once more, then released, and so on. The ‘baddie’, Gusman, declares, ‘È destin ch’ei mora,/ né mai destin cangiò’ (He is designed to die, he cannot again escape death), but by the end one is tempted to retort, ‘Oh yes he can!’. A similar lack of genuine forward motion characterises the music too; there are no real moments of dramatic revelation propelling the action forward, and thus the scenas feel a little static and self-contained.

But, the score has a heart-on-sleeve approach to charting the emotional waters. The overture sets the tone: frothy woodwind curlicues give way to tempestuous tutti, serene strings are superseded by a romping conclusion. It’s so Verdian it’s almost self-parody. But, it’s also rather good. While there are none of the elaborate choruses, complex ensembles and elaborate orchestration that mark Verdi’s finest works, there is much melodic beauty, vibrancy and vigour.

Mario Sofroniou was an earnest Zamoro, producing afine display of strong, muscular singing. If he could relax a bit more, he would achieve a greater sense of openness and spontaneity, but he the shaped lines well — particularly in his Act 2 aria, ‘Irne lungi ancor dovrei/ carco d’onta e fuggitivo?’ (Must I drag out my days as a fugitive, bowed down with shame?). He had the stamina for his extended scenas and was an appealing stage presence, winning the affection of the audience.

As Zamoro’s rival in love and war, Mark Holland’s Gusmano began a little cautiously but grew in confidence. Initially, his baritone, while attractive, seemed quite small and somewhat tight, but in Act 2 he engaged more assuredly with the drama, especially in his duet with Alzira. His final Act aria of forgiveness was most touching, the tone soft but centred.

Irish soprano Majella Cullagh was magnificent in the title role. The shimmering string tremolo which presages her first aria, ‘Da Gusman, su fragil barca’, set a suitably expectant mood after the exclusively male voices of the prelude and Act 1 opening (wrongly labelled in the programme, Acts 1 and 2); and, from these first moments Cullagh spun a gorgeous bel canto thread, gleaming and bright. Her cabaletta was nimble. Occasionally, in the more delicate, sustained moments one could sense Cullagh working hard to maintain secure intonation; but she demonstrated a sure sense of the overall formal shape of the scenes, and clearly knows how to use dynamics to create drama. Her Act 1 duet with Sofroniou was finely judged.

Both the female cast members outshone the men in one specific regard: namely, they were less bound to their vocal scores: indeed, as Zuma, Alzira’s maidservant, Lithuanian Liora Grodnikaite was alone among the cast in having fully memorised her part. Consequently, she was able to concentrate on developing character and situations, her creamy mezzo soprano both sensuous and decorous.

Paolo Battaglia never wavered as a stentorian Alvaro, tempering his authoritative stance only at the close in a moving display of grief upon his son’s death. The declamatory pronouncements of Francisco Javier Borda’s Ataliba were rather inflexible and monotonous of tone, but like all the cast, the words were clearly audible. Tenors Jorge Navarro-Colorado (Otumbo, an Indian warrior) and Paul Curievici (Ovando, a Spanish officer) made up the fine cast.

The Chelsea Opera Group Chorus could not quite summon the force required to project from the back of the hall over the instrumental forces massed before them. The handmaidens’ chorus in Act 1 was pretty enough, and the soldiers’ chorus which opens Act 1 was, despite being rather stale and hackneyed stuff — sung with energy and vigour. The orchestra was occasionally bombastic in the big numbers, but elsewhere conductor Gianluca Marcianò graded the dynamics sympathetically in the arias (aided by Verdi’s scoring). It took the strings a little while to settle (the overture to Don Giovanni, a tribute to the late Sir Colin Davis, which preceded Alzira was decidedly ragged in ensemble and passagework) but once they found their feet they produced much warmth and richness to complement some excellent woodwind playing. Without undue haste, Marcianò kept things moving; he was a bundle of energy on the podium whose enthusiasm coaxed evident commitment and enjoyment from his players.

One of few Verdi operas where the lovers are both alive and together at the close, this performance proceeded to its happy close and was greeted with much appreciative applause. So, is this an opera deserving of the neglect it has suffered? When, many years after the premiere, Countess Negroni reminded Verdi of the work he reputedly replied: ‘That one is really hideous.’ Clearly memories of the Neapolitans’ snub ran deep. Chelsea Opera Group made a convincing case for an opera which is short, punchy and full of melodic charm. Let’s hope someone ventures a fuller staging before too long.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Majella Cullagh: Alzira; Mario Sofroniou: Zamoro; Mark Holland — Gusmano; Paolo Battaglia: Alvaro; Francisco Javier Borda: Ataliba; Jorge Navarro-Colorado: Otumbo; Liora Grodnikaite: Zuma; Paul Curievici — Ovando; Gianluca Marcianò: conductor; Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 2nd June 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):