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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.

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“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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.



Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton]
19 Aug 2013

Prom 47: Brahms — A German Requiem

In the first of her two visits to the Royal Albert Hall this summer, Marin Alsop led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its associated Choir through three nineteenth-century works which are united by their romantic intensity and progression from darkness to light.

Prom 47: Brahms - A German Requiem

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton]


It was apparent from the first quiet, probing pulses of the basses, accompanying the gentle rise and fall of cellos and violas, that the choice of period-instruments for Brahms’ German Requiem — a work of magnificent power and spiritual grandeur — was a wise one. Above this mild, mellifluous platform every word of the Choir of Enlightment’s calm opening pronouncement was crystalline. This is not a liturgical mass for the dead but rather a personal testament designed to console the living — it was composed after the death of the composer’s mother, and inspired also by memories of his beloved friend, Richard Schumann — and Brahms’ ‘message’ was nobly evident in the Choir’s opening words: ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,/ den sie sollen getröstet werden’ (Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted). Alsop consistently gave the text — garnered by the composer himself from Luther’s German Bible and from the Apocrypha — room to speak without undue force, and the result was a remarkably intense quietude matched elsewhere by an equally dignified and moving radiance.

The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (For all flesh is as grass), began with fateful gravity, the timpani’s dark, funereal pulses sensitively articulated by Adrian Bending. Legend has it that a pre-premiere run-through of the first three movements of the Requiem were somewhat sabotaged by the relentless fortissimo pounding of an over-enthusiastic timpanist; here, and throughout the work, Bending offered a master-class in percussion playing, achieving tense restraint, insistent power, and building to perfectly judged, thrilling climaxes. The movement roved through alternating passages of despair and resignation before the Choir’s grandiloquent outburst, ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Weigkeit’ (But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever).

Baritone Henk Neven intoned the opening words of the third movement, 'Herr, lehre doch mich,/ dass ein End emit mir haben muss’ (Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days), with composure tinged with anxiety. Deftly crafting the humbling exchanges between soloist and chorus, in which Neven wonderfully conveyed both the fears and hopes which define human mortality, Alsop effectively controlled the structure and accumulating tension, before the latter was released by the timpani’s affirmative pedal Ds in the vigorous, up-lifting — but never bombastic — fugal conclusion, ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,/ und keine Qual rühret sie an’ (But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be torment touch them).

After the joyous simplicity of the subsequent assuring chorus, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth’ (How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts), the radiant purity of soprano Rachel Harnish’s graceful, floating lines wonderfully expressed the restful comforts of the text, a quiet confession of the composer’s faith. Neven’s interchanges with the Choir in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ (‘Now we have no dwelling place’) resumed the forward motion, the chorale-like rhythms and blend of traditional and fresh harmonies driving the music purposefully towards the fugal conclusion. In the final movement Alsop reasserted the solemn, but sweet, nobility of the opening bars; the quiet benediction of the close, ‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead) was deeply affecting.

This was a wonderful performance in which Alsop drew forth the underpinning mood of the Lutheran chorales which are the foundation for so many of the melodies, sustaining a consistent aura of lyrical splendour and combining the movements, which can sometimes feel disparate and lacking a clear dramatic progression, into a convincing whole.

The programme began with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Alsop captured the sombre mood but did not quite sustain the momentum, especially in the slower developmental central section, and she struggled to gather the various, sometimes extensive, episodes into a structurally coherent whole. Here the choice of period instruments seemed less successful, not fully able to summon the oppressive weight or dynamic contrasts of the composer’s orchestral canvas. The textures were crisp, however, and there was some beautifully relaxed piano playing from the horns and woodwind. The surge towards the terse conclusion was fittingly stormy.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony completed the programme, in which Alsop’s tempi were brisker and this helped to define the thematic links between the movements and create a strong sense of a unified whole. Those who disparage the composer’s overly dense instrumentation were here refuted by the lightness and clarity of the OAE’s orchestral conversations and the even balance of timbres. The dark brooding of the double basses (all eight of them) was neatly countered by the sheer sonorities of the upper strings and woodwind solos. An enchanting oboe solo from Michael Niesemann introduced the second movement, a graceful Romance in which the violins found a translucent elegance, inspired by some wonderful playing by leader Kati Debretzeni. A spirited Scherzo gave way to more temperate Trios, before an upwelling into the robust, exuberant Finale, in which Alsop — who conducted from memory throughout the concert — demonstrated an energetic enthusiasm which bodes well for September 7th, when she will become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

There was much fine playing from the OAE. But, it was the precision and thoughtful poise of the Choir of Enlightenment which lifted this performance from ‘good’ to something special.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor; Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachel Harnisch, soprano; He nk Neven, baritone; Marin Alsop, conductor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Choir of the Enlightenment. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday, 17th August 2013.

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