Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Macbeth in Lyon

A revival of the Opéra de Lyon’s 2012 Occupy Wall St. production of Verdi’s 1865 Macbeth, transforming naive commentary into strange irony, some high art included.

Barber of Seville Is Fun in Tucson

On March 4, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson. Allen Moyer designed the bright and happy scenery for performances at Minnesota Opera,

Moody, Mysterious Morel

Long Beach Opera often takes willing audiences on an unexpected journey and such is undeniably the case with its fascinating traversal of The Invention of Morel.

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

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.

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV recreated at Versailles

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi. This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King's death.

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.

Songs for Nancy: Bampton Classical Opera celebrate legendary soprano, Nancy Storace

Bampton Classical Opera’s 25th anniversary season opens with a concert on 7th March at St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the legendary soprano Nancy Storace.



First Night of the Proms 2016
16 Jul 2016

First Night of the Proms 2016

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.

First Night of the Proms 2016

A review by Mark Berry

Above: First Night audience stand for the Marseillaise

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.


Music, especially avowedly political music, has associations, though, and what many, but not all, English and French listeners might understand as solidarity following the previous night’s carnage in Nice, might sound rather different to a listener from, say, the Maghreb. Nationalism is, after all, a big part of the problem - as London has rediscovered with a vengeance over the past few weeks. The issue of ‘national anthems’ is fraught too; ours, in the (Dis)United Kingdom is about as divisive as it could be, eliding membership of a nation with monarchism and thus necessarily defining republicanism as a foe within. French revolutionaries, insisting on national sovereignty, offered a not entirely dissimilar binary opposition: that, ultimately, led to the execution of Louis XVI, who, having a veto, could not be part of the nation, which, in a time of emergency, led to one particular conclusion. It also led to - well, we know the rest. Returning to the Royal - yes, Royal - Albert Hall, applause at the end heightened the oddness. If the opening number were a sign of respect, however problematical - and that is how I took it, standing like everyone else - then why would one applaud? Might an aestheticised version of the anthem, for instance that of Berlioz, not have been another option? I felt conflicted, then, but I seem to have been in a minority; many were clearly inspired by the hope and solidarity they felt had been afforded.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet sounded, in this context, especially dark in its fatal opening bars. The introduction took its time, pace gathering with a proper harmonic foundation; Sakari Oramo is far too musical a conductor to whip up artificial ‘excitement’. The Allegro sounded turbulent indeed, counterpoint nicely Berliozian (should that not be too much of a paradox). The BBC Symphony Orchestra played the ‘Love’ theme gorgeously, without a hint of vulgarity. On more than one occasion, the harp stole our hearts, although so, to be fair, did the BBC woodwind. Tension between programme and material was productively explored, so to enthral and indeed to move all the more. There could certainly be no doubting the strength of the partnership between the BBC SO and Oramo.

Sol Gabetta joined them next for the Elgar Cello Concerto, with equally fine results. In the first movement, the Moderato material proved very much the child of the preceding Adagio, transition emotionally as well as technically seamless, whilst remaining a transition nonetheless. Much the same might be said of the transition between first and second groups; although the mood lifted in some respects, it remained dependent (secondary, one might say) upon what had come before. It was not all doom and gloom, by any means; Elgar’s Mendelssohnian inheritance came sparklingly to life at times. Underlying sadness, however, remained inescapable. The background of German, even Leipzigerisch, Romanticism was also present in the scherzo; it sometimes came into the foreground too, albeit without banishing unease entirely. Elgar’s modernity, even modernism, was as unquestionable as its roots. (Applause and bronchial outpourings were most unwelcome at the movement’s close.) There was nothing morose about the Adagio, although it certainly sounded deeply felt. It was, rather, passionately songful, with wonderfully hushed tones too to relish, both from Gabetta and the orchestra. Dialogue and incitement were the generative order of the day in the final movement. Light and shade were expertly judged, likewise harmonic motion. Kinship with Elgar’s symphonies was clear, although, by the same token, this was decidedly later music too, almost an English cousin to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ultimate weight was placed on the finale, and rightly so. Gabetta returned to the stage, following justly warm applause, to perform Pēteris Vasks’s Dolcissimo, her solo vocal as well as instrumental; this was an auspicious Proms debut indeed.

Sol Gabetta 2.pngSol Gabetta. Photo Credit: Chris Christodoulou.

The second half was given over to Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata, based on the composer’s score for Eisenstein’s film of that name. Its nationalism can hardly fail to make one uneasy too; Stalin is quoted in the Proms programme as having declared to the director, ‘Sergey Mikhailovich, you’re a good Bolshevik after all!’ Not that Stalinism by this stage had so very much to do with Bolshevism, but anyway … Prokofiev, awkwardly for many of us who admire him, often, although not always, seemed to flourish in such circumstances. Those who would have us believe that art is somehow removed from politics could not be more wrong; more to the point, their protestations could not be more pernicious. However much one might want to wish away awkward questions, such as over the Marseillaise, one cannot - and should not.

The opening orchestral number, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’, was cold yet colourful, just as it should be. The ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’ revealed choral forces (both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales) both weighty and clear. Prokofiev’s homophonic writing helps in the latter respect, of course, but only helps. The ‘patriotism’ and militarism of the words - ‘Ah, how we fought, how we hacked them down!’, ‘Those who invade Russia will meet death,’ etc. - is all the more perturbing when performed with such musical conviction as here. An impeccably post-Mussorgskian orchestral opening announced ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’, the dissonances of course quite Prokofiev’s own, harking back to The Fiery Angel and forward to Romeo and Juliet. Even here, in ‘socialist realist’ land, there is some of the bite of the more youthful composer’s acerbity - and so there was in performance. Echoes of Boris Godunov sounded all the more strongly as the number progressed. One could hear what must have attracted Claudio Abbado to this music.

The following chorus, ‘Arise, Russian People’, provided a not un-Mussorgskian contrast. Motor rhythms in particular rendered the composer’s identity unmistakeable. Glockenspiel and xylophone offered the most enjoyable of rejoicing later on. ‘The Battle on the Ice’ is the longest number in the cantata; here it proved very much the musical and emotional heart too. Its introduction was not only atmospheric, but atmospheric in a filmic way. Oramo brought out the glassy violas at dawn to strike a proper chill. Still more chilling was the barbarism of war proper, those motor rhythms and grinding dissonances once again proving the engine of progress; the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony hovered not so far in the musical future, whilst Mussorgsky’s shadow was, once again, rarely far from the aural stage. Eisenstein came to the eyes of our imagination. Olga Borodina walked onto the stage for ‘The Field of the Dead’, seemingly as an angel of death. And yet she sounded, in her ineffably Russian fashion, a note of consolation as well as one of tragedy. This contralto-like rendition held the hall spellbound. The final chorus, ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’, struck a more difficult note. Now is not the time, to put it mildly, for patriotic rejoicing in London, and disconcerting it sounded, even when of a ‘foreign’ variety. It was magnificently done, though, chorus, orchestra, and conductor alike clearly relishing their musical task. Perhaps they had succeeded in putting the words to one side.

Mark Berry

Tchaikovsky - Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet; Elgar - Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85; Prokofiev - Cantata: Alexander Nevsky, op.78. Sol Gabetta (cello)/Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)/BBC National Chorus of Wales/BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Adrian Partington)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 15 July 2016.

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):