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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.

COC’d Up Ariodante

Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.

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.

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.

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.

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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

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“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

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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.



Photo by Mahogany Opera
08 Jul 2013

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

Poised between ritual and drama, between East and West, between Zen-Buddhist symbolism and Christian medieval morality play, Britten’s three church parables pose some tricky problems — including a deliberately objectivised framing device which can distance the work from the audience, and, unusually for Britten, some less than effective musico-dramatic pacing.

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

A review by Claire Seymour

Above photo by Mahogany Opera


So, it is perhaps not surprising that the triptych is rarely performed as a unified entity.

This triple bill, performed over two nights, by Mahogany Opera directed by Frederic Wake-Walker was therefore a welcome proposition. Commencing their tour in Russia, at the Hermitage and the Church of St Catherine in St Petersburg (presumably because the former was where Britten and Pears first saw the Rembrandt painting, ‘The Prodigal Son’, which inspired the third parable), Mahogany have since visited the venue of the first production, Orford Church Aldeburgh, and will conclude their performances in Buxton in mid-July.

The long, narrow nave of Southwark Cathedral was the venue for this round of performances, as part of the City of London Festival — a suitably solemn setting, especially as these interpretations emphasised the sombre, religious gravity of the works.

Curlew River , performed on Wednesday 3rd July, transfers the narrative of the Japanese Nō play, Sumidagawa. A Noblewoman, driven made by grief when her son is kidnapped, comes to a ferry. The Ferryman refuses to take her across to the shrine on the further bank, until her despair moves him and the other pilgrims to feelings of guilt. During the journey, he relates the miracles that have occurred at the shrine, the grave of a young boy, and the Madwoman recognises that her son is the boy in these stories. Upon reaching the tomb, the mother is confronted by a vision of her child, and is relieved of her madness.

All the principals were on fine form. Samuel Evan’s Traveller’s Prayer was full of restive yearning; Rodney Earl Clarke’s Ferryman offered a moving counsel to the Madwoman to pray for her child.

But it was tenor James Gilchrist who was the musical and dramatic linchpin of these performances. From his opening, Grimes-like, fragmented cries, he was entirely in sympathy with the role of the Madwoman — and in tremendous voice, his vocal exclamations simultaneously dramatically agitated and vocally focused. The tenor soared in pitch and dynamic, at times angry, elsewhere full of doubts; this performance was an impressively controlled rendition of intense love and inner crisis.

Unfortunately, Gilchrist was draped from head to foot in an assemblage of dishevelled, grey rags which would not have disgraced a 1940s BBC ghost-costume department. Robert Tear — who was Pears’ understudy at the first performance — remembers Pears complaining, “Really, Ben, I just can’t work in this frock”, to which Ben replied to Colin Graham, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Colin, give her a crin”, but even the composer can’t have envisaged that such a clichéd visual statement of psychological distress was necessary. [1]

There was some assured playing from the small band of instruments, performing without a conductor, supported by Roger Vignoles’ well-shaped chamber organ accompaniment. Alex Jakeman’s flute flutter-tonguing perfectly complemented the unstable psyche of the Madwoman, and the glissandi and portamenti of the cadenza that accompanies her arrival at the ferry ramp, were expertly executed. The flute’s symbolic curlew cries were poignantly lyrical, and flute and voice came together affectingly during the mother’s sparse soliloquy before her son’s tomb. There was some warm, expressive playing from violist Max Baillie, and the percussive colours of the score were ably and evocatively executed by Scott Lumsdaine.

The following evening Gilchrist was similarly fine as the Lucifer-like Abbot-Tempter in The Prodigal Son, the most overtly ‘Christian’ of the three parables, and perhaps the ‘weakest’ in terms of musical concision and tightness. As the Abbot, addressing “people, listening here today”, he disturbingly intoned the disconcertingly simple modal line, “Do not think I bid you kneel and pray … I bring you no sermon/ What I bring you is evil”, accompanied by the liturgical resonances of the organ and exotic cymbal whisperings. As Gilchrist urged the Young Son to ‘Imagine, imagine/What you are missing. … High living, secret delights,/ And beauty, beauty/ To kindle your senses”, glistening harp textures (Tanya Houghton) and chilling double bass portamenti (Ben Griffiths) added a portentous sheen. The instrumentalists were technically assured throughout: during the journey to and arrival at the city, when the Young Son is accompanied on his path to dissolution by the Tempter, was marked by a virtuosic palette of striking orchestral colours.

Rodney Earl Clarke was a strong presence as the heartless Elder Son. John McMunn’s Young Son was full of persuasive self-confidence as he justified his desire for freedom, but this was replaced by a melancholy introversion and despair when he realised the extent of his errors, in a moving duet with the viola.

The over-riding sentiment throughout these performances was earnest solemnity, with the emphasis on the moral framework of the works, rather than their emotional or dramatic dimension.

Yet, despite some fine instrumental playing, an accurate and resonant Chorus of Pilgrims, and some arresting designs by Kitty Callister which were as economical yet impressive as Britten’s own orchestration, things felt just a little too controlled and repressed — the restless uneasiness which permeates the score was not always present.

Moreover, the elongated nave further distanced many of the audience from the action, and the acoustics of the venue played havoc with the text. On the first evening, I was seated at the rear of the nave, and the only singer whose words were on occasion audible was Gilchrist — and in this regard he was not helped by the rags which covered his head and face throughout the performance. Things improved when a front nave seat on the second evening permitted many more of the words to come through but, even so, the action still seemed overly remote.

The processionals and rituals certainly emphasised the renewal of faith which is achieved in each parable. But, the pace seemed overly ponderous, the choreography too stylised; it’s worth remembering that Britten himself express his concerns “lest the work should seem a pastiche of a Noh play, which however well done, would seem false and thin”. [2]

Exiting the dimly lit cathedral into the urban clutter of London Bridge Station and the Shard was a rather dislocating experience; mystic power gave way to modernity all too quickly.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

James Gilchrist (tenor); Rodney Earl Clarke (bass); Samuel Evans (bass); Lukas Jakobski (bass); John McMunn (tenor); Frederic Wake-Walker (director); Roger Vignoles (musical director); Principal Players of Aurora Orchestra. Mahogany Opera. City of London Festival, Southwark Cathedral, Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th July 2013.


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Faber, 1982), p.430.

[2] Letter to William Plomer, 15 April 1959.

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