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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.

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.



19 Dec 2013

Carmen, Royal Opera

Francesco Zambello’s 2006 Carmen, here revived for the sixth time, seems to have something of an identity crisis: sumptuous spectacle or gritty drama?

Visually, a vibrant palette and slick choreography are the order of the day. The warm hues of designer Tanya McCallin’s looming sets complement the concentrated ochres and rusts of the Sevillians’ attire; in the bright sunlit square (lighting design, Paule Constable), an orange tree and a water conduit add a dash of ‘realism’. Wealthy passers-by stroll nonchalantly; children skip and prance, their comings and goings overseen by the watchful military guard. The choral numbers are meticulously manoeuvred; there is scarcely an urchin’s footstep or whirling parasol that is out of place. It is all very pretty and eye-pleasing, but the overall effect is rather soulless; the participants seem to perform for us, rather than engage with each other.

The same is true of the flamenco dancing in Act 2: the fancy footwork and showmanship (choreographer, Arthur Pita, revived by Sirena Tocco) remind one of a Christmas Nutcracker, designed to please the eyes and ears, without overly troubling the heart and mind.

Given the foregrounding of these highly managed ensemble routines, the omission of the Act 4 chorus at opening of last act is both surprising and a disappointment. And, there are some redundant ‘extras’: if the donkey in Act 1 looked perplexed as to its purpose, the decision to introduce Escamillo on horseback is even more unfathomable. McCallin’s high walls have swung inwards to create the cramped and darkened locale of Lillas Pastia’s inn; there is hardly room to swing the proverbial cat, let alone ride a horse.

Fortunately, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role, offered much recompense. Passionate and committed, Rachvelishvili’s voice is huge, but also mellow and luxurious — although it is stronger at the bottom than the top. She used the sultry, exotic colours of her lower register to dominate the stage. Physically too she emphasised Carmen’s earthy sexuality, acting with untamed abandon, dismissive of moral boundaries, ruthlessly targetting her prey. I’m not sure that we needed to see quite so much leg, or quite so often. Rachvelishvili seemed to spend much of the opera with her skirt hitched up to her hips, legs astride the hapless males who strayed into her clutches; indeed, even when she promised to perform a special dance for Don José, in his honour, this Carmen promptly lay down and bared her flesh. The unalloyed sluttishness was rather overdone and diminished rather than increased her allure.

Carmen rather overwhelmed her José, Robert Alagna, in the first two acts; this gypsy is no ‘victim’ of patriarchal and racial oppression, simply a ‘bad girl’ who destroys her man. Alagna sang with his customary projection — indeed, a little less ‘con belto’ would have been nice at times — but the intonation was disappointingly inconsistent — most lamentably at the pianissimo close of his Act 2 Flower Aria, where Alagna’s tender cadence was marred by flat pitch. The acting was rather perfunctory to begin with but in Act 4 Alagna did begin to convey Don José’s torment, credibly portraying the complexity of the pitiable soldier’s divided affections and self-rebuke.

There was little rapport between Verónica Cangemi’s Micaëla and José: in the opening act, the reunited childhood friends sang side-by-side, clutching hands and facing the audience — again, singing to us, rather than each other. José’s perfunctory kiss — blink and you’ll miss it — suggested he mind was occupied with nostalgic thoughts of his much-missed mother rather than with amorous inclinations. The Argentinian Cangemi struggled technically — the top was insecure and there was some vocal roughness, but ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ communicated sincere feeling.

Italian bass-baritone Vito Priante sang well enough, but didn’t make much impact dramatically as Escamillo. A few poses à la toreador astride the table-top do not alone fashion a hero of the bull-ring.

In the secondary roles, baritone Ashley Riches (Moralès) and French bass Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga) made a stronger impression; the latter evinced the masculine power and authoritative presence that both Alagna and Priante at times lacked. Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly (like Riches, a Jette Parker Young Artist) was strong as Mercédès, and she was neatly complemented by Simona Mihai’s bawdy Frasquita.

The ROH Orchestra sounded ragged at times; Daniel Oren’s conducting was somewhat unpredictable — the overture began with breakneck swiftness, before trailing off dispiritingly; the Habanera was sleepily sluggish. In particular, the dancers in the second act seemed disconcerted by the irregular tempo, but throughout stage-to-pit co-ordination was weak. There was some fine individual instrumental playing but the parts didn’t add up to an accomplished whole.

There are several changes of cast to come in this production run, which continues until 9th January, including two more acclaimed Carmens: Anna Caterina Antonacci and Christine Rice. They will have a challenge to match the uninhibited, almost reckless, abandon of Rachvelishvili’s blazing intensity.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili; Don José, Roberto Alagna; Escamillo, Vito Priante; Micaëla, Verónica Cangemi; Frasquita, Simona Mihai; Mercédès, Rachel Kelly; Le Dancaïre,Adrian Clarke; Le Remendado, Stuart Patterson; Zuniga, Nicolas Courjal; Moralès, Ashley Riches; Director, Francesca Zambello; Revival director, Duncan Macfarland; Conductor, Daniel Oren; Designs, Tanya McCallin; Lighting design, Paule Constable; Choreography, Arthur Pita; Revival choreographer, Sirena Tocco; Fight director, Mike Loades; Revival fight director, Natalie Dakin; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th December 2013.

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