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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.

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.

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English National Opera: Don Giovanni

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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.



Emily Magee as Empress [Photo © ROH / Clive Barda]
19 Mar 2014

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera

Magnificent! Following the first night of this new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, I quipped that I could forgive an opera house anything for musical performance at this level, whether orchestral, vocal, or, in this case, both.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Emily Magee as Empress

Photos © ROH / Clive Barda


Dread memories of Christof Loy (Tristan and Lulu, here in London, still more his unspeakable Salzburg travesty of Die Frau) made me wonder afterward whether I had shown undue clemency, but no: almost two days later, I am still reeling from the impact of so extraordinary a performance, one which no house in the world could conceivably improve upon, and which I doubt could even be matched. For whilst Claus Guth’s production had many virtues, which I shall come to a little later, it was Strauss’s astonishing, still widely misunderstood, score which, rightly, had pride of place. If any performance, anywhere in the world, does more for his cause in this anniversary year, I think I shall find myself in need of a new vocabulary of superlatives.

140311_0862.pngJohan Reuter as Barak and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife

Above all, I must commend Semyon Bychkov and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The very first time I heard this work was in 2001, the final outing of John Cox’s Royal Opera production, with celebrated designs by David Hockney; Christoph von Dohnányi’s conducting of the orchestra remains one of the finest I have heard of a Strauss opera. Then, I found myself lost in admiration both for his and for this orchestra’s achievement. Bychkov proved himself every inch Dohnányi’s equal; indeed, I am not entirely sure that he was not surpassed. No matter: it is not a competition. Bychkov’s command of the orchestra was nothing short of awe-inspiring. If in retrospect, the first act seemed seemed a little on the expository side, then that is surely a reflection of Strauss’s writing. Patiently building up not only the dramatic tension but the motivic material from which the score would truly, ravishingly blossom, Bychkov showed himself possessed in equal measure of an ear for colour so acute as almost to rival Boulez — now imagine a FroSch from him! — with the deepest of structural understanding. Horizontal and vertical presentation of the score offered in conjunction with voices and staging a three-, even four- dimensional performance to rival that one sees in one’s mind when hearing Karl Böhm on CD. And if the Covent Garden did not sound quite with Böhm’s Viennese sweetness, it had phantasmagorical qualities all of its own: the refreshment of a true rival rather than the flattery of imitation. More than once, I found myself thinking, doubtless heretically: Klangfarbenmelodie! Strauss’s uncomprehending disdain for the ‘atonal’ Schoenberg notwithstanding, we did not stand so very far from the world of the latter’s op.16 Orchestral Pieces. Bychkov’s ear for combining musico-dramatical tension in the combination of sonority and harmonic tension ensured that we must think of him as not only an excellent, but a great Straussian.

And then — the singing! That earlier Covent Garden performance had also marked my first encounter with Johan Botha. He proved at least as remarkable more than twelve years on. This Emperor, as mellifluous as he was vocally powerful, sounded every inch a Siegfried, and a golden age Siegfried at that. (If indeed such an age ever really existed.) Emily Magee had a few moments of relative infallibility, but by any reasonable standards, her Empress was an impressive achievement, all the more so given the wholehearted dramatic commitment offered in conjunction with the purely vocal. Elena Pankratova was making her Royal Opera debut as Barak’s Wife; hochdramtisch singing of the highest order was to be savoured here, her climaxes at the end of the first and second acts sending shivers down the spine. If Johan Reuter’s Barak at first sounded a little plain, that may as much have been character-portrayal as anything else; his performance grew into something genuinely moving, testament to the potential greatness of, as it were, Everyman (to borrow from Hofmannsthal’s future). As for Michaela Schuster’s Nurse, her offerng of musical and dramatic malevolence — tonality on less the pre- than the post-Schoenbergian brink, though never beyond it — would have been an object lesson in itself, even had it not been heightened by such stage presence and intelligence. Smaller roles were almost all impressively handled, David Butt Philip’s attractively voiced Apparition perhaps especially worthy of note. The only disappointment was the tremulous Falcon of Anush Hovhannisyan. Renato Balsadonna’s Royal Opera Chorus was, as expected, excellent throughout.

140311_0631.pngElena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife; Michaela Schuster as Nurse and Emily Magee as Empress

Guth’s staging, first seen at La Scala in 2012, presents the Empress in a sanatorium, Christian Schmidt’s stylish designs highly evocative of the time of composition. Our heroine is, one might say, hysterical in every sense. To begin with, she — and we — are somewhat unclear concerning the boundaries of reality and dream. Is Freud being channelled or satirised? Unclear, and all the better for it, which renders the very ending, in which it appears ‘all to have been a dream’ something of a disappointment. That said, much of what we see in between is riveting. With the best will in the world, some of Hofmannsthal’s symbolism upon symbolism — The Magic Flute really is best left alone — can seem unnecessary; it certainly seemed — and seems — to do so to Strauss. Yet the poet’s idea of transformation gains a fair hearing, or rather viewing, and there is a proper sense of the mythological, even the fantastical, to the dreamed world we enter, never more so than at the spectacular close to the second act, Olaf Winter’s lighting crucial here, and the craggy opening of the third. Those problematical echoes of Tamino and Pamina’s trials are presented with greater visual conviction than I can previously recall — and indeed greater conviction than one often sees in productions of the ‘original’. The sheer weirdness but also menacing sense of judgement emanating from a courtroom of strange creatures close to the end not only testifies to imagination and its possibilities but also to the misogynistic pro-natalism, from which, try as we might, we cannot ultimately rescue the opera. By contrast, Loy in Salzburg arrogantly declared that the work did not interest him and made not even the slightest attempt to deal with it. It was the sort of thing that might appeal to those who do not care for Strauss, or indeed Hofmannsthal, in the first place, though even they would most likely have been bored to tears with the banal ‘alternative’ narrative presented. Guth, for the most part, successfully treads a tightrope between presentation and interpretation.

A good staging then, and a truly outstanding musical performance. My first act upon returning home was to visit the Royal Opera House website, to buy myself another ticket. Hear this if you can. The performance on 29 March will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 5.45 p.m.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Nurse: Michaela Schuster; Spirit Messenger: Ashley Holland; Emperor: Johan Botha; Empress: Emily Magee; Voice of the Falcon: Anush Hovhannisyan; The One-Eyed: Adrian Clarke; The One-Armed: Jeremy White; The Hunchback: Hubert Francis; Barak’s Wife: Elena Pankratova; Barak: Johan Reuter; Serving Maids: Kathy Batho, Emma Smith, Andrea Hazell; Apparition of a Youth: David Butt Philip; Voices of Unborn Children: Ana James, Kiandra Howarth, Andrea Hazell, Nadezhda Karyazina, Cari Searle, Amy Catt; Night-Watchmen: Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim, Adrian Clarke Voice from Above: Catherine Carby; Guardian of the Threshold: Dušica Bijelić. Director: Claus Guth; Designs: Christian Schmidt; Lighting: Olaf Winter; Video: Andi A. Müller; Associate Director: Aglaja Nicolet; Dramaturge: Ronny Dietrich; Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)/Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday 14 March 2014.

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