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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!”

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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.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

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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.

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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.

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English National Opera: Tosca

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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.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

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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

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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.



10 Aug 2014

Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms

Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.

Luciano Berio : Sinfonia, Dimitri Shostakovich : Symphony no 4. Vassily Petrenko, European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, BBC Prom 26, Royal Albert Hall, London 5th August 2014. A review by Mark Berry-


Petrenko did a reasonable job in Berio; however, I could not help but wonder how often he had conducted the work before. It was certainly a swift, driven reading, but that seemed to reflect a head more than usually stuck in the score (understandable, given the circumstances).The opening of the first movement was promising indeed: aethereal, its harmonies unmistakeably announcing an ‘Italian’ flavour - both Dallapiccola and Nono springing to mind - whatever the undoubted internationalism of Berio’s outlook. It is a great piece for the European Youth Orchestra, not only in terms of that ‘internationalism’ but also because, like Mahler (if only we could have had his music in the second half!) a large orchestra is employed, but sparingly, smaller ensembles drawn therefrom to wonderful, magical effect. It was a pity Petrenko drove so hard, but the movement recognisably remained itself.

The second movement came across almost as a ‘traditional’ slow movement, albeit again with sparing, almost soloistic use of the orchestra. An appropriately geological and river-like sense characterised the third movement. Mahler’s Second Symphony was the bedrock, of course, but I was also fascinated by the thoughts of memory and its tricks that the Rosenkavalier references provoked. If anything, Strauss and Hofmannsthal proved the more resonant on this occasion, though whether that was simply a matter of my frame of mind, or was in some sense owed to the performance, I am not sure. At any rate, the combination - and conflict - between the EUYO and London Voices made it seem, especially in the context of Petrenko’s once-again driven tempo, almost as though one were trapped within a human mind, and a witty one at that. Mathieu van Bellen offered an excellent violin solo. The typically varied vocal references included one to ‘Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony’, concluding with a ‘Thank you, Mr Petrenko’. Amplification perhaps seemed a bit heavy in the fourth movement, though perhaps it was more a matter of the acoustic; nevertheless Berio’s imagination continued to shine through. I wondered whether the final movement might have smiled a little more - no such problem with the voices - but all was present and correct, and often rather more than that.

As for Shostakovich: well, his apologists hail this symphony as a masterpiece, but an opportunity to hear it had the rest of us wish it had remain ‘withdrawn’, not on account of any dangerous ‘modernism’ - Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ truly was insane! - but because it is such a dull, frankly un-symphonic work. For the most part, Petrenko and the EUYO did all they did to convince, although string playing sometimes went awry. The first movement opened with Lady Macbeth-style Grand Guignol, perhaps more interesting than anything that followed. Precision and attack were impressive: there was a chilling mechanistic quality to the performance, but alas, the work ensured that returns diminished, Shostakovich’s threadbare invention rendered all too apparent after a while. The second movement is at least shorter, but from the outset, one felt, as so often with this composer, that one had heard it all before, and it still seemed too long.

Oft-drawn comparisons with Mahler seemed as incomprehensible as ever. They made a little more sense in the final movement - so long as one bore in mind Boulez’s observation that Shostakovich offers at best a ‘second pressing’ in olive oil terms - but surely nothing justified the lack of variegation and indeed the sheer tedium of this piece. Petrenko and the orchestra rendered the movement’s Largo opening nicely creepy. Various woodwind took the opportunity to shine within the confines of generally unrelieved lugubriousness. There could, however, be no papering over the formal cracks. How I longed for a little invention: Haydn, Webern, Mahler, Berio, just about anyone! Is it not about time that we abandoned puerile Cold War attitudes and considered whether this music is actually any good, rather than merely sympathising with the autobiography of an alleged ‘dissident’?

Mark Berry

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