Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.



18 Jul 2015

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Svadba and Le Monstre du labyrinthe in Aix

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Simon Rattle conducting the Aixoises
Photo by Vincent Beaume courtesy of the Aix Festival


Svadba means marriage in Serbian, a slavic language. There are apparently marriage customs that straddle slavic cultures, one of which is the preparation of the bride’s hair for the marriage day, like Konstantin Makovsky’s enormous The Russian Bride’s Attire (1889) that hangs in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. This is simply that.

The opera Svadba follows in the footsteps of the famed Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir so evidently there is a tradition of women’s songs and singing that is strangely absent from Western European and American high art.

That Svadba is an opera is a question in itself. It may be more of a painting as there is little if any dramatic development. Mainly there is exposition of subject, like your eye following the story told in the fixed images — a painting. There is of course much physical motion, thanks to the fine efforts of two U.S. trained artists, stage director Ted Huffman and choreographer Zack Windkur who set abstract movement for each of the seven moments of this female version of what in the U.S. is an all male stag party.

Svadba_Aix1.pngThe six singers of Svadba
Photo copyright Bernard Coutant

Like immersing yourself in a painting the subject matter of Svadba is of less importance than the delight you find in the way its story is told. Composer Ana Sokolovic created these seven moments with the six female voices, but they are not always a cappella. There were strategic dings of a bell, an electronic tape or maybe a synthesizer, plus noises the six singers created with the few props as well as stomping, clapping and tongue clicking.

The sound world was enormous using the tones of trained voices that mostly moved in soundscapes of close intervals, though of course there was much rhythmic invention of syllables that were both nonsense and Serbian. To our Western ears the formulated voice sounds were all abstract (the sounds were so involving that we ignored the sparse supertitles). When there were melodic moments they were in the modal scales of slavic folk music, and this alone created a long ago and far away atmosphere.

There were two strategic and quite beautiful moments when the voices collided on the first inversion of a triad chord, and the grandiose final moment when the voices resolutely landed on a perfect fifth! It was good music.

The subject matter is essentially slavic folklore though its relevance surely has long disappeared. The metteurs en scène, perhaps the composer as well chose to update the imagery to contemporary dress and action. I found this disconcerting given the specifically dated subject matter. Or maybe there currently are some strange customs among Serbian women who live in Canada.

The six singers were superb musicians with beautiful voices. These 55 minutes were splendid indeed.

Our evening continued across town at the recital hall of Aix’s Darius Milhaud Conservatory of Music, part of Aix’s magnificent performing arts campus. Unlike the ill conceived auditorium of the next door Grand Théâtre de Provence (it is round), this recital hall is appropriately shaped (oblong) and has a very fine, live acoustic.

Modigliani_Aix - 1.pngThe Modigliani Quartet

The Modigliani Quartet performed Beethoven’s 4th string quartet (Op. 18), Ravel’s famed Quartet in F Major, and relevant to the evening’s slavic focus, the Hungarian Ernö Dohnányi’s 1926 third quartet (Op. 33). What this fine quartet has to do with Modigliani, if anything, is an open question. There is no question however that it is a quartet with attitude. Each of the three works were ambitiously attacked to the degree that you feared it was not humanly possible to keep up such volume, speed and intensity for the extended duration of four movements. It was.

Like the six women of Svadba the four men of the quartet moved in soundscapes, achieving a sweeping lyricism that ignored the musical structures of the printed page, frustrating however some listeners with this lack of apparent structure. The unique sound of this quartet is symphonic, the four instruments precisely matched in a very wooden tonal color (the instruments are not credited in the program). The unison breathing of the four men was made very apparent either through the transparent acoustic of the room or the aural concentration the quartet motivated in the listener. It was big playing by four young virtuosos.

The Dohnányi is an edgy and anxious piece, the second movement alternating huge, nervous variations on a chorale theme with quiet (here played pianissimo) moments. The final moments of the last movement well echoed the extreme excitement of the intense Svadba scenes before it roared in tonal edginess to a horserace finish. It is big music, good music.

There was a time when the Aix Festival was at odds with its host city, Aix-en-Provence. Under the stewardship of Stéphane Lissner (1998-2006) the festival floundered artistically though Lissner did succeed in developing a close and cooperative relationship with the citizens of Aix. The festival has indeed regained its artistic footings with the current leadership of Bernard Foccroulle and importantly it has not lost the willing cooperation of the Aix citizenry so ably gained by Mr. Lissner.

To the degree that just now the citizenry of Aix starred in Jonathan Dove’s Monster of the Labyrinth, rendered in French as Le Monstre du labyrinthe. Like Svadba Dove’s Monster is really a concert piece, but unlike the extreme technical demands of Svadba Dove’s Monster was intended to be performed by a community chorus challenged only by the minimal musical demands if not by its considerable length.

Scores, maybe hundreds of Aixoises — men, women and children — had learned the whole thing (a considerable amount of music) by heart, obviously devoting considerable time to rehearse their moves around the Grand Théâtre de Provence.

Monster had its world premiere on June 20 at the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin, performed next by the London Symphony in London on July 5 (yes, you get it — conducted everywhere by Simon Rattle), and at the Aix Festival on July 8 and 9 again with the London Symphony, though in all cities the orchestras included student, community or semi-professional players.

The music is primarily brass fanfare and huge choruses in a series of scenes that take the youth of Athens to Minos to be consumed by the Minotaur, only to be saved by the young Theseus. It is a piece for amateur performers, their communities and their families, not an work to be savored by opera aficionados and dissected by critics.

Monster_Aix2.pngThe projected maze, staging by Marie-Eve Signeyrole
Photo copyright Vincent Beaume

Of critical interest in Aix however was the staging by Marie-Eve Signeyrole who last winter gave us an excellent Eugene Onegin in Montpellier. Mlle. Signeyrole’s signature technique is the inclusion filmic action, meaning that she uses an enormous cinema screen as backdrop on which she projects what is happening on stage from various perspectives, and most dazzling from above. Note that this worked perfectly for creating Dedale’s maze. Not only memetic of the stage actions the projections include original material, like the Theseus Minotaur battle enacted by two hugely enlarged, i.e. digitally amplified origami puppets.

The staging was of consummate charm, the masses of choristers moving graciously through the minimal stage elements and finally throughout the auditorium. Upon entering the auditorium we had been given a piece of paper. After the minotaur had been eliminated there was a full stop of everything and the was stage emptied. We were now instructed by 6 year-old boy (alone on the vast stage) how to turn the piece of paper into an origami ship so we could all get back to Athens.

The final celebratory chorus was sung by the choristers surrounding us in the auditorium, Sir Simon Rattle having turned to conduct the dispersed chorister and all of us in a final anthem while we (all of us) proudly held our ships on high.

Oh my.

Michael Milenski

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):