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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.

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!”

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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.

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.

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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.

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

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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.



Arnold Schönberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]
10 Mar 2014

Schoenberg and company

With Schoenberg, I tend to take every opportunity I can — at least since my first visit to the Salzburg Festival, when understandably I chose to see Figaro over Boulez conducting Moses und Aron, though I have rued the loss ever since.

Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot lunaire, op.21, with works by Dallapiccola, Nono, and Gerhard

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Arnold Schönberg: Blaues Selbstportrait, 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]


Whether that be a matter of travelling to Leipzig to see the brilliant triple-bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas, ‘Moderne Menschen’, or missing out on Leif Ove Andsnes playing Beethoven a couple of miles away at the Barbican, Schoenberg tends to exert a special call. Whether I should have been better off ignoring the call on this occasion remains unclear. Certainly if the standard of the first half of the concert had been repeated in the second, I should have been far better off staying at home. But then a good Pierrot lunaire more or less managed to save the day.

Jane Manning remains a force of nature, having given her first broadcast performance with Pierrot almost fifty years ago, in 1965. No one is ever likely to agree — even with his or her own thoughts, let alone anyone else’s — about how this work ‘should’ be performed. It is far better to allow that different performers bring different qualities to it on different occasions. If truth be told, Manning was probably wise to downplay the sung element in her recitation. The moments, relatively few, when she moved towards song suggested, not surprisingly, a voice that had known better days. And yet, her vast experience — not just of this, but of more than 350 (!) world premieres, a good number of which would have taken inspiration from Schoenberg in one way or another — shone through nevertheless. The words and their possibilities she clearly knew backwards. (Now there is an idea for another Pierrot-ensemble piece.) She knew, in a way composers such as Luigi Nono or Helmut Lachenmann would surely have appreciated, how to make the most of vowels, consonants, the journeys between them. Above all, she appreciated and communicated the strong element of cabaret. Manning’s was in every sense a performance, and all the better for it.

Not, of course, that the reciter is all there is to Pierrot, far from it. Giora Bernstein led a highly musical account from an excellent bunch of players. Perhaps balance was tilted a little too much away from the ensemble, but we have a host of other performances in which we can savour still more strongly what Stravinsky quite rightly considered an instrumental masterpiece. There were virtues aplenty, nevertheless. The passacaglia registered as such as strongly as I can recall, Night eventually obscuring in more than one sense. Dance rhythms made their Viennese impressions without exaggeration, the ‘Heimfahrt’ an especially fine example. Benjamin Baker’s violin and viola playing was perhaps particularly impressive, perfectly attuned to shifting mood and context, but the ensemble as a whole, including Julian Jacobson’s piano, such a relief after the first half, had no weak links.

As for that first half, well… Doubtless Alberto Portugheis’s heart was in the right place. The concert seems to have been his project; he was listed as ‘curator’. But sadly, it marked a triumph of ambition over even rudimentary technical ability; this was piano-playing that would have disgraced many an amateur performance, and may well have been the worst I have heard in a professional context. The opening Zemlinsky’s 1891 Three Pieces for cello and piano would most likely have done the composer no favours in a stronger account. Apparently rediscovered recently by Raphael Wallfisch — I am placing my trust in a programme note which, in many respects, proved otherwise highly fallible — they are at best apprentice works, straining towards, yet never coming remotely close to Brahms. Here, Portugheis and, much to my surprise, Rohan de Saram sounded as if they were sight-reading. There was little or no sense of musical collaboration; indeed, the players fell noticeably out of sync on more than one occasion. De Saram fared better in Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo, and Adagio, though even when playing solo, it took him a while to get into his stride, the chaconne initially hesitant. At least, though, the performance offered some sense of the stature of the piece, its dodecaphonic lyricism and structural integrity a wonderful introduction to this appallingly neglected composer.

Nono’s ¿Donde estás, hermano? was provoked — the composer spoke of his need for such a ‘provocation’ to compose, to bear witness — by the ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. The music comes from Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco, no.2, but here without electronics. (Not that one would have known from the programme, which bathetically informed us that Nono had ‘strongly-held political views’.) The vocal quartet — Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili, Katie Coventry, and Anna Migalios — seemed excellent. Alas, their performance was compromised by Portugheis’s insistence on conducting; they would surely have better off without. Plodding and without technique, Portugheis’s contribution was summed up by his score falling off the music stand towards the end. As for his solo rendition of Gerhard’s Don Quixote dances, the first opened quite strongly. At last, I thought, we might hear something from him equating to a real performance. I should not have tempted fate. Much of the rest sounded closer to a bumbling amateur’s initial read-through. From time to time, some sense of rhythm or pulse emerged, only roundly to be defeated.

Sadly, then, I was reminded of Boulez’s observation about the self-defeating nature of the occasional performances of music by the Second Viennese School in his youth. The technical standard had been so poor that they did more harm than good, an incitement to him to mount his own performances, leading to the foundation of the Domaine musical. If only, if only…

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Jane Manning (reciter); Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili (sopranos); Katie Coventry (mezzo-soprano); Anna Migalios (contralto); Benjamin Baker (violin/viola); Rohan de Saram (cello); Susan Milan (flute/piccolo); David Campbell (clarinets); Julian Jacobson, Alberto Portugheis (piano); Giora Bernstein (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, Tuesday 4 March 2014.

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