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.



Elizabeth Kenny
16 Dec 2013

Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier

With the gaudy excesses of secular seasonal indulgence just a few streets away and the tills of Oxford Street traders rattling out melodies of materialism, this advent programme of elegance and refinement offered by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the early music ensemble which she founded, Theatre of the Ayre, provided a welcome opportunity for repose and reflection.

Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth Kenny


Never one to tread customary paths, Kenny and her performers took us down unfamiliar by-ways during this evening of music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, beginning with a series of French noëls, carols and dances. Sung from the gallery, gradually increasing in intensity and joy, the traditional Noël, ‘A minuit fut fait un réveil’ (At midnight they were woken up), swept into the instrumental ‘Guillo, prens ton tambourin’, in which Clare Salaman’s boisterous hurdy-gurdy established a mood of spirited abandon.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Sells began a little tentatively in Charpentier’s ‘Noël pour les instruments’ (H534), in the air ‘Joseph est bien marié’ (Joseph is well married), but was more assertive when relating Joseph’s initial anger at his wife’s conception, the lines sharper and more agile; and, the angel’s words were emotively conveyed. Several instrumental numbers followed, full of musical and textural contrasts and enriched by adventurous chromaticisms. Salaman and leader Rodolfo Richter’s violin duet, in ‘Lassez paistre vos bêtes’, was particularly notable for its fluidity of line and beautiful clear tone.

When one considers French music of the seventeenth century, the word ‘oratorio’ does not naturally spring to mind. However, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was not only the first French composer to write oratorios, he also composed a substantial number of them, both secular and sacred. Having travelled to Rome in the 1650s to study painting, Charpentier found himself changing tack; he decided instead upon a career in music, studying with Giacomo Carissimi who was maestro of the chapel of Sant’Apollinare at the German College of the Jesuits from 1630 until his death in 1674, and one of the early masters of the Latin oratorio.

Returning from Rome, Charpentier found employment in the household of the Duchesse de Guise, where he was maître de musique until the Duchesse’s death in 1688, and the ‘Christmas oratorio’ that the Theatre of the Ayre presented here — In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum — was one of four which are known to have been written specifically for private performance by the Duchesse’s musical retinue. The composer declared that these musical servants were ‘so good that one could claim that those of several great sovereigns did not rival it’ (Mercure Galant, March 1688, p.306); the performers on this occasion certainly rose to the professed heights of their forerunners.

As we might expect, Charpentier enriched the traditional oratorio with elements of the contemporary French style, incorporating instrumental music, experimenting with concertato and contrapuntal textures, deepening the harmonic palette with progressive chromaticism, and widening the dramatic range of the vocal numbers. The members of the Theatre of the Ayre relished the musical conversations between voices and instruments. They captured the graceful lilt of the Preludium, with its pastoral rhythms and warm, full textures, before mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych related the ‘Récit de l’Historien’, giving us the first taste of the wonderfully full, sensuous tone with a wide range of expressive shades and colours that would delight throughout the evening, and which so beautifully enriched the closing ‘Air de Choeur’, the strophic rondeau ‘Salve, puerule’ (Hail, little child).

Despite asking for our understanding, as she was suffering from a chest infection, soprano Sophie Daneman, evidence little for which to apologise, finding a delicate softness for the gentle ‘Air de l’Ange’, accompanied by two recorders. The solo numbers of the oratorio are fairly brief — perhaps because the texts do not relate sustained expression of a single emotion that longer arias would require — and the tenderness of the angel’s song was quickly swept aside by the lively contrapuntal ensemble, ‘Choeur des pastores’, establishing a swift dramatic movement. The shepherds encourage each other to hasten to Bethlehem, and the ensuing instrumental march vigorously depicted their impetuous journey. Jonathan Sells’ short air, recounting the shepherd’s arrival at the stable, was fittingly mild and graceful, if a little understated.

The final hymn to the new-born Christ epitomised the way Charpentier used juxtaposition and diversity of texture and colour to create flowing dramatic-narratives: the solo soprano and mezzo-soprano passages contrasted affectingly with each other, and also with the ensemble verses and instrumental interjections. The closing choral diminuendo and relaxation of pace was sensitively accompanied by airy theorbo, and the rise into the final glowing cadence, ornamented by a lovely tenor decoration, was artfully controlled.

Indeed, this unrolling of diverse dramatic and musical episodes within a unified form made it apparent why the slightly surprising programming of Christmas Noels with a more substantial secular work, Charpentier’s ‘pastorale en musique’, Actéon, which was presented after the interval, made perfect sense.

Actéon relates an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A ‘miniaturisation’ of the tragédie-lyrique, the work incorporates all the musical elements of the full-scale form compressed into a smaller compass which suggests that it was originally designed for presentation in the home of a private patron, and which also makes it wholly suited to the intimate Wigmore Hall stage.

A sprightly French overture introduces the action, and the nimble, airy texture was characteristic of the instrumental playing throughout, the bright recorders contrasting sweetly with the warm but rhythmically incisive strings. The buoyant cries of the energetic ‘Choeur des chasseurs’ were interrupted by tenor Paul Agnew’s urgent avowals, as Actéon presses his hunters to take their quarry to the Goddess Diane’s grove, to offer it as a sacrifice to her divine beauty. Agnew sang with assurance and much expressivity, the tone beautiful, the text clearly conveyed. Actéon’s aria after the hunt, as he rests alone in the peaceful valley, was wonderfully crafted, the repeated rising appoggiaturas at the phrase-ends sensitively nuanced to communicate the emotions directly and movingly. There was an occasional sense of strain at the top, as when Actéon rejoices in the freedom of his heart, but Agnew’s sense of wonder when he espies the Goddess was spell-binding, the moment made all the more affecting as a result of the injection of tension and pace upon his subsequent discovery by Diane, and by the simplicity and openness of the tenor’s unworldly, innocent pleading, ‘Le seul hazard et mon Maleur/ Font toute mon offense’ (Only bad luck and my misfortune/ are my whole offence).

In the scene in which Actéon undergoes his tragic transformation, Agnew’s powerful monologue stirringly depicted the horrified visions of the dying man, as he declaimed the arioso lines with articulate eloquence. The violins’ delicate, halting response to the tragedy, and the concluding chains of falling suspensions played above a pianissimo continuo pedal, significantly added to the pathos.

Daneman was a fiery Diane, injecting brightness and vigour into the Goddess’s fury and chastisements. Starushkevych, as Junon, once again proved that she has undoubted star quality, using a variety of colours to convincingly depict character and singing the declamatory arioso with flexibility and style.

Charpentier’s characters and ensemble groups are clearly delineated. Here, the burly choruses of the hunters were complemented by the tranquil melodiousness of Diane’s nymphs. Helen Neeves and Heather Cairncross blended sweetly as Daphné and Hyale warn mortals not to stray into the Goddess’s grove, their entwining lines echoed sensitively by the two violins. Neeves also impressed as Aréthuze.

The larger ensembles were characterised by accuracy and concord, although there was still room for individuality and nuance. For, as Charpentier wrote, ‘Diversity is the very essence of music … Diversity alone is the source of all that is perfect in it, just as uniformity is the source of all insipidity and unpleasantness in it’ (Règles de composition fol.13). The Theatre of the Ayre, performing with complete commitment and considerable insight, as individuals and as a group, confirmed the truth of his words.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Charpentier: In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum H414, Seasonal Noëls, Actéon

Elizabeth Kenny, director, lute; Sophie Daneman, soprano (Diane); Helen Neeves, soprano (Aréthuze, Daphneé); Anna Starushkevych, mezzo-soprano (Junon); Heather Cairncross, alto (Hyale); Paul Agnew, tenor (Actéon); Jason Darnell, tenor (chasseur); Jonathan Sells, bass-baritone (chasseur); Rodolpho Richter, violin; Clare Salaman, violin, hurdy gurdy; Alison McGillivray, bass violin, bass violin; Pamela Thorby, recorder; Catherine Latham, recorder; Merlin Harrison, bass recorder; David Miller, theorbo, guitar; James Johnstone, harpsichord, organ. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 12th December 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):