Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots [Image by Classical Opera]
29 Sep 2013

Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots

Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to see Bampton Classical Opera’s light-hearted, witty production of Mozart’s earliest opera — La finta semplice — a work which, despite lacking the melodic variety and texture dynamism of the later operas, is still a remarkably accomplished achievement for a boy of merely twelve years of age.

Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots by Classical Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above image by Classical Opera


In fact, Mozart first put words and music together in an extended dramatic work of substance during the previous year, 1767, and at the Wigmore Hall it was the turn of Classical Opera to present the whizz kid’s juvenilia, offering a rare chance to hear Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots — a setting of Ignaz Anton Weiser’s adaptation of an episode from St Mark’s Gospel, which was composed for performance at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s Palace during the period of Lent, when secular plays and opera were forbidden.

The libretto is a righteous allegory, albeit one presented with a dash of wry drollness. A half-hearted Christian lies sleeping, while Mercy, Justice and the Spirit of Christianity engage in a debate, pontificating vociferously in a series of three sententious arias. When the Christian awakens, he is afraid — perhaps he has overheard Justice’s severe moralising? — but comfort is at hand, in the form of the Spirit of Worldliness who offers him the pleasures of freedom, sensuality and dreams, slyly reassuring him that the warnings he has hearkened are no more than a trap prepared by their common enemy, or a fleeting dream. The Spirit of Christianity seeks to save the wavering Christian from debauchery and damnation, entering disguised as a doctor and warning that ‘spiritual surgery’ is needed. The Christian begins to question him in the hope of learning the elixir of eternal life, but Worldliness, bored by their discussion, declares that the best medicine is gambling, hunting and sexual pleasure. The Christian is, however, impressed by the Christian Spirit’s arguments, and accepts a sealed document in which the ‘miracle cure’ is contained, before Worldliness interrupts and drags off her protégé to a dinner party, leaving the censorious trio to sermonise once more in a concluding ensemble. Whose fault will it be if the Christian is eternally damned? Only his own, they agree.

The action takes place ‘in an agreeable landscape, with a garden and a small wood’; the first performance was probably presented in concert form but with some stylisation and stage setting. Here, COC chose — as is their usual practice — to present the oratorio/cantata in concert performance — the singers’ attire providing the only theatrical signposts: black austerity for Justice and Mercy, glittering creamy gold for the Spirit of Worldliness, and a white coat for the Spirit of Christianity when in medical guise.

But, the plot is simple, the characterisation unambiguous, and the cast told the tale engagingly; and, while the text is often excessively moralistic and highfalutin, the singers made the most of the musical glimpses of the young Mozart’s dry delight in, and tender sympathy for, human shortcomings.

All the cast got through the lengthy recitatives with impressively direct communication and conversational naturalness. Sarah Fox, as Mercy, was particularly assured in this regard, confidently delivering the recitative off-score. In her aria, Mercy objects that men wander from the straight path through lack of willpower and because they do not obey ‘the first commandment’ (the literal translation of the title) — ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God’. Fox sustained the extended melodic lines evenly, but occasionally the large leaps to the upper register lacked a smooth grace.

Mary Bevan was a regal and imperious Spirit of Justice, once her intonation had settled. Bevan injected energy into Justice’s repeated demands that the Christian — ‘the lazy scoundrel’ — should arouse himself from his slumber, a nimble rising figure from the cellos adding a gentle humour as Justice insists that she cannot show tolerance towards souls unworthy of mercy, as it is her duty to reward the righteous and punish the guilty. In the slower second section of the da capo aria, unison string quavers throbbed mordantly, the minor key hinting at the inescapable moment of reckoning that awaits all men.

As the hedonistic Spirit of Worldliness, Ailish Tynan adopted an aptly spirited bearing, her gown and coloratura glittering with equal devilishness. Tynan’s flexible soprano danced through the sprightly rhythms of her aria, executing the coiling runs and trills insouciantly; she demonstrated considerable stamina, and her cadential trills were tight and bright. She exhibited a rich, seductive sheen, although occasionally her voice was less well-focused in the lower register.

Allan Clayton was admirable as the faltering Christian; awakening from his dream, his tenor was movingly earnest and open, as he was reminded of the torments of Hell and Judgement by rushing strings and sharp dotted rhythms. With tender delicacy, Clayton conveyed the vacillations and waverings of the Christian’s soul, complemented by some gentle string playing and a notably agile and accurate, horn obbligato played with assurance and sensitivity by Gavin Edwards. The elaborated vocal repetitions of the da capo were fluid and flexible, Clayton’s melodic lines evenly sustained and well-supported.

Robert Murray sang the Christian Spirit’s opening number, and his ‘diagnostic aria’, with directness and firmness, confidently compassing the upper reaches, extravagantly ornamenting the cadences and demonstrating excellent length of line in the running semi-quaver passages. Murray’s account of the ‘operation’ which would literally ‘make’ humans could have been even more mischievous, but the asides had a playful shrouded quality.

The overture, while not a bad symphonic effort for an eleven-year-old, is a rather repetitive ritornello structure and somewhat uninventive, melodically and harmonically. Though performed with elegance by the players of the Orchestra of Classical Opera, with striking dynamic contrasts, I felt the rather thick scoring demanded a lighter touch, and a faster pace, than conductor Ian Page provided — indeed, there was several places where the tempo seemed rather slow, resulting in a lack of dramatic momentum and musical nimbleness. Page did, however, bring clarity to the inner textures, foregrounding interesting accompaniment motifs, many of which significantly contribute to the musical characterisation.

The youthful composer frequently responded pictorially to the text, painting the words mimetically, and the instrumentalists under the baton of Ian Page were responsive to such details. ‘An enraged lion roars’ as punchy horns growl accompanied by scurrying strings, for example, and at Christianity’s mention of the ‘hideous howling’ emitting from the chasm of Hell a veritable orchestral tumult ensued culminating in eerie harmonic twists as ‘if one of the damned himself/ were to rise up from his grave’!

Although the spirit of mischievous irony which this spiced up Lenten entertainment surely infers was not always sufficiently indulged, there is a childlike sincerity about this work which Classical Opera deftly captured.

This month, the company release a recording of a new partnership with Signum Records, Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots — the first enterprise in a new partnership with Signum Records. The two-disc set includes an exclusive feature film on the making of the recording, as well as additional French and Italian translations of the notes, synopsis and libretto, which are provided in English and German in the accompanying liner booklet. Clayton and Fox reprise their roles and they are joined by Andrew Kennedy (Spirit of Christianity), Sophie Bevan (Spirit of Worldliness) and Cora Burggraaf (Justice). Ian Page conducts.

Classical Opera perform more Mozart at the Wigmore Hall on 31 December, and on 30 January and 8 May next year; while on 13 March, they travel across town to Cadogan Hall for a performance of an opera composed at the opposite end of Mozart’s life, La clemenza di Tito.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Justice, Mary Bevan (soprano); The Spirit of Christianity, Robert Murray (tenor); Mercy, Sarah Fox (soprano); The half-hearted Christian, Allan Clayton (tenor); The Spirit of Worldliness, Ailish Tynan (soprano); conductor, Ian Page; The Orchestra of Classical Opera; continuo, Christopher Bucknall (harpsichord), Andrew Skidmore (cello), Cecelia Bruggemeyer (double bass). Classical Opera Company. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 24th September 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):