Recently in Performances
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
06 Jul 2014
Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
La Fille has certainly been derided over the years for its vulgarity and
jingoistic tendencies. Yet dig a little deeper and you find that the canny
Donizetti was also in fact essaying a new direction away from the
all-conquering Italian opera of his time and, by a slick piece of “art
concealing (or revealing?) art”, he was on the way to creating a new style.
Indeed he had more than 20 years of compositional experience behind him by the
time Fille hit the stage in 1839/40, and he used all his considerable
wiles to achieve his aims. Perhaps Theophile Gautier best summed up this work
as “facile et spirituelle” — and certainly it seduces with its
infectiously gay (in the original sense),light, and bright music as much as it
explores the weightier themes of nationalism, feminism and the human response
to loss and war, despite skimming over them with a gossamer thread of catchy
tunes. So how to bring all this to a tiny space in the Wiltshire countryside?
Suzanne Shakespeare as Marie
Director Jeff Clarke and his designers Nigel Howard & Graham Wynne and
conductor Toby Purser simply threw away the rule book for this English-language
version and solved the production “problems” with panache, wit, imagination
and, well, plenty of va-va-vroom. Literally almost, as the Regiment is
converted to a South Californian Hell’s Angels-type biker gang, all six of
them beautifully kitted out in full leathers, tattoos and bandanas riding some
interesting-looking “Darley Havisons”. They are “at war” with a rival
gang and so immediately we understand what Clarke is doing and are seduced into
this early 1960’s version of the Napoleonic wars. Marsha Berkenfield, social
climber in LA, her daintily-camp butler Mr.Hortensius, Sulpice is
“president” of the Regiment gang, Dulcie Crackenthorpe an appalling old
heiress, Tonio a Hispanic immigrant (serendipitously cast) and Marie as in the
original, an orphan “found” by the Regiment as a baby. True, there is the
odd surgical cut: no room, literally, for the opening scene with the
“Marquess” and Tyrolean peasants praying for deliverance en masse — but
apart from that Clarke has kept very close to the original opera. The libretto
however was definitely given a far freer rein by Clarke: plenty of choice biker
language, plenty of near-the-knuckle anti-Hispanic invective.
Any “Fille” anywhere has always been an opera which stands or falls by
the success of its Daughter of the Regiment; over the decades it has been
defined by many by the quality of the soprano singing the role of Marie —
from Jenny Lind, via the great Dame Joan Sutherland, and on to such modern day
successes as Natalie Dessay. So it was a delight and a relief to hear young
Australian-born soprano Suzanne Shakespeare take on the mantle with a fearless
display of sparkling coloratura, trills and even a few decorations of her own.
Her voice has both a warm middle and a shining top: E flats popped with aplomb,
yet with “Il faut partir...” her goodbye to the gang in Act One,
she found a touching pathos, ably drawn. A bravura performance from start to
finish — a young star on the high road for sure. So then, of course, there is
the “will he, won’t he” aspect of Tonio’s (in)famous “Mes
amis....”. If young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez was nervous, it didn’t
show. We might have been nervous for him for in that intimate space and
orchestration for just eleven instruments, but yes he delivered all nine of
those high Cs with conviction and bang in tune.
Jesús Álvarez as Tonio
However, no matter how thrilling the young leads were, or how convincing
their acting, here at Iford it was the role of Sulpice, sung by the excellent
Adrian Clarke which held the whole show together. Totally in the part from
start to finish, beautifully observed, expressively sung, what a tour de force
he gave us. Almost as impressive was Katharine Taylor Jones’ Marsha
Berkenfield, a statuesque figure wearing the vintage dresses with assurance and
poise, her warm mezzo voice supple through the range. A comically-awful Dulcie
Crakenthopre was played in drag by one of the bikers, Philip Cox who obviously
had a lot of fun mixing his roles. James Harrison’s mincing butler was the
right side of caricature and kept the laughs coming. A word must be said here
for the biker gang: sung by Cox, Richard Belshaw, Graham Stone, Martin George,
Angus McAllister and Richard Woodall, this was no ordinary “chorus” job.
With only six voices to fill out Donizetti’s wonderful music each was a true
soloist, each a significant actor. The same must be said of the 11 players of
that music: from opening solo trumpet to resounding final chords, nowhere to
hide and nowhere needed.
The production team kept it simple but effective with the cloister converted
to a tract of dry desert and cacti. The Music Lesson was ingeniously staged
with an electronic keyboard masquerading as a grand piano, in turn doing duty
as a dance-stage. Clever, witty, and it worked. Which, really, sums up this
mini-triumph of the imagination. A must-see if you can.
La Fille du Regiment (sung in English), Iford Opera, Saturday, July
Opera della Luna at Iford Opera playing: July 8th,
10th, 12th, 15th, 17th and