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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.



08 May 2014

Amsterdam: Arabella’s New Water in Old Glasses

What a difference a venue and a cast can make!

As a shared production, I confess I had been under-whelmed by this staging of Arabella in another (major) theatre, but it took the Netherlands Opera to make a believer out of me that the concept indeed had something substantial to offer. Herbert Murauer’s white box of a playing space that seemed so limiting before, looked expansive and intriguing on the wide stage in the broad auditorium of Het Muziektheater.

Here it functioned beautifully as a blank page with shifting panels upstage that slipped and slid to reveal selected shallow portions of a hotel room that has seen better days, devoid of most furniture except a straight back chair here and there. Mr. Murauer has accessorized the deglamorized quarters tellingly with a lamp on the floor in search of its table, and improvised black ‘curtains’ covering the windows in a desperate attempt to maintain some privacy from judgmental eyes.

The peek-a-boo panels that had seemed so contrived before, now seemed invaluable in framing the action and emotional content, adding a layer to sub-text, and actually helping to define character relationships. Every movement of the panels caused anticipation akin to opening another box on an Advent calendar. Behind this backline of panels , the hotel room did some linear slipping and sliding of its own, at once unsettling and fascniating. At one time the living room was center stage, the next it was far to the right, having sidled to draw Arabella’s denuded bedroom into view. I have to say, that whatever my first impression may have been, this use of the dis-orienting reveals proved perfectly in service to the drama, even enhancing the slender plot.

Act II’s party scene in the ante-chamber of a chandeliered ballroom was elegant and practical, its central beige marble staircase and banquettes of sofas allowing for varied levels and meaningful compositions. The segue that followed ‘Zdenko’ and Matteo into the men’s room was funny and inventive. The permanent white box framing the extreme front of the stage became a sort of no man's land of collective consciousness wherein principals not only came to grips with their own introspections, but also interacted with other characters without distraction.

In a brilliant decision, the entire final conflict and confrontation scene was enclosed in that box, with characters almost literally bouncing off the boundaries liked caged animals. When the up left panel opened a crack to uncover a cramped group of eavesdroppers, it was as though a veil had been lifted on the characters’ psyches, suggesting a disturbing breach of privacy and decorum.

Christof Loy has, on this occasion, found a consistency of approach, created telling stage pictures, nurtured detailed character interaction, and invested the whole affair with considerable wit and imagination. I will not soon forget Zdenka revealing herself as a female by tearing off her shirt and pulling down her pants to reveal the black dress she wore for the seduction, then hobbling comically about the stage with her pants around her ankles. Funny yes, but also truthful. Even the stretches of solos directed through the fourth wall seemed to have found dramatic purpose, and emotional states were always well-communicated.

Converse to injecting fresh humor into certain moments, Mr. Loy managed to bring darkness to the usual flippant antics of the ball scene, with a doped up Fiakerlmilli being abused, Matteo attempting a suicide with a pistol, and wasted young revelers tumbling and rolling about with waning motor function. In another masterful (and not disruptive) invention, the director injected a loooooooooong silent pause in Act III just before Zdenka confesses all, a wrenching moment that held us rapt as the girl grappled with the truth in anguish. Very moving. Perhaps my change of heart lies largely with the capabilities of a cast that could hardly be bettered.

In the title role, the radiant Jacquelyn Wagner’s flawless account announced to the world that she owns the part for the foreseeable future. Ms. Wagner is an ideal Arabella, with a gleaming, warm soprano that has body and sheen in every register and at every volume. She is a lithe and lovely actress, effortlessly elegant, yet capable of sass and sparkle for stage bits like her contentious relationship with her fur coat, or her chucking the goddam roses on the floor in frustration. Best of all, while she is highly adept at thrillingly expansive vocalism, she can also effectively handle the required smaller moments of self-doubt, all the while flat out “singing” them with body and point. Not for Jackie the mewing, cooing, sotto voce posturings and affectations of other “interpreters.” She just sings the damn’ thing! Gloriously. You heard it from me: Jacquelyn Wagner is the must-have Arabella of the moment. The Dutch public embraced her success with a “fortississimo” ovation.

No less remarkable was the (let me just say it) best-sung Mandryka I will ever likely hear. James Rutherford has a singularly beautiful instrument, manly, buzzing, robust, warm, substantial, and well, Terfel-ish. Mr. Rutherford has been assuming Wagner roles in smaller, acoustically friendly houses (to include Bayreuth) but I have no doubt he has the fire-power and stamina to conquer any stage he visits. His rolling bass-baritone is hooked up from top to bottom, and James also really sings the part, quite a departure from the barking, hectoring prats that we too often encounter. He has an easy “bear” presence on stage, and made a crackerjack of an entrance when he strode on stage in an ostentations rustic coat made from fur of an animal(s) he might have killed himself. (The apt costumes are also by Mr. Murauer). When Mandryka’s grievous error is revealed, Mr. Rutherford just crumbles, and his appeal is such that we grieve for his heart-wrenching humiliation. If it got any better than this my heart couldn’t take it. Another star on the rise.

Nor to imply that those two stars over-shadowed Zdenka, because Agneta Eichenholz simply knocked it out of the park. Ms. Eichenholz sports a full-bodied lyric soprano with plenty of sparkle and thrust, deployed with lots of heart and superb artistry. The character arguably takes the biggest journey over the evening, and Agneta conveyed it beautifully, all the while singing with secure legato and plenty of fire. She also paired gorgeously with Arabella, both sopranos able to imbue their duets with a haunting, inviting quality that had seamless appeal.

Susanne Elmark’s slender, fluty soprano was absolutely rock-soild, projected cleanly, and was possessed of meticulous coloratura. The musical excesses and extremes of the role held absolutely no terror for her as evidenced by her assured musical performance. She was all the more remarkable for executing all the fireworks while impersonating a drug-impaired, loose-limbed good time girl, who gets more than she bargained for.

Will Hartmann’s Matteo provided many happy moments when his compact tenor soared over the orchestras, but during a couple of quieter patches his tone experienced a mite of unsteadiness, making me wonder if there was some ‘heft’ being imposed on a more lyrical instrument which made for difficulties when he changed gears. Still, Mr. Hartmann was dramatically involved and affecting. Marcel Reijans as Count Elemer, showed off a light but shining tenor, and displayed a bright, engagingly boyish timbre. Rogert Smeets’s Dominic was typically secure and reliably solid; while the handsome Thomas Dear succeeded as Lamoral, entertaining us with a dark and pleasing bass, used with pointed gravity.

Local girl Charlotte Margiono can do no wrong, and indeed, she proved to be luxury casting as Adelaide. The accomplished soprano still has a sumptuous roundness, plenty of heft, and admirable clarity. Ms. Margiono savored her turn in the spotlight, especially during the naughtier bits where she proved there is fire in the old girl yet. She (and we) had a blast. Alfred Reiter proved to be a perfect foil as the willful Count Waldner His big, biting voice may be more imposing than appealing at this point in his career, but it served the character well. While her name is almost longer than the role, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen knocked our socks off at the top of the night, with a socko turn as the Fortune Teller that had real fire, commitment, a blazing chest voice and a searing top. She took the stage, seized the moment, and boy, did she get our attention!

Under Marc Albrecht’s baton, the Netherlands Philharmonic was dazzling, on fire with a virtuosic intent that swept every element of the production along with it. Maestro Albrecht led a propulsive, richly detailed reading that seemed inevitable yet carefully controlled. The winds were especially vivid, the brass statements verged on the profound, and the sumptuous strings could provide a lush bed of sound second to none. From ‘tutti’ ensemble playing to lean, exposed accompaniment, nothing eluded this inspired groups of players. Their and Mr. Albrecht’s triumph earned the day’s most vociferous acclaim.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Count Waldner: Alfred Reiter; Adelaide: Charlotte Margiono; Arabella: Jacquelyn Wagner; Zdenka: Agneta Eichenholz; Mandryka: James Rutherford; Matteo: Will Hartmann; Count Elemer: Marcel Reijans; Count Dominic: Rogert Smeets; Count Lamoral: Thomas Dear; Fiakermilli: Susanne Elmark; Fortune Teller: Ursula Hesse von den Steinen; Welko: Richard Meijer; Servant: Richard Prada; Conductor: Marc Albrecht; Director: Christof Loy; Set and Costume Design: Herbert Murauer; Lighting Design: Reinhard Traub; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra

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