Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

10 Mar 2019

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Mozart’s Idomeneo and Verdi’s Macbeth: ETO at the Hackney Empire

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The cast and Chorus of Idomeneo

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Returning from the Trojan Wars, his ships and crew threatened by a tempest, the Cretan King Idomeneo bargains with the sea-god Neptune in order to save his own skin, and in so doing risks losing his son, by his own hand. Having vowed to sacrifice the first person he meets upon his safe arrival on his home shore, Idomeneo is greeted by his son, Idamante, and finds himself conflicted by the demands of love and duty. Mozart’s opera seria dramatizes the King’s attempt to unravel the mess of his own making, as rivalries, jealousies and intrigues fester and flourish at his Cretan court. As so often with the Greeks’ tragic tussles, the modern-day parallels are painfully apparent.

However, in contrast to Austrian director Martin Kušej’s approach at Covent Garden in 2014 , director James Conway has eschewed the idea of turning the opera into, in his words, a ‘specific history lesson’, and the untrammelled simplicity of his conception and its execution in this ETO production of Idomeneo begets rich results. This is a production characterised by musical insight, dramatic composure and technical excellence, on the part of the creative team and cast equally. In a programme article, Conway confesses that he has previously hesitated to direct Idomeneo, fearing its ‘relentless earnestness’, but here he makes such sincerity a virtue: this Idomeneo is notable for its clarity, candour and communicativeness.

Katie Mitchell’s modern-day for production for English National Opera (2010) had assorted pen-pushers, waiters and flunkies dashing about the stage in what I described at the time as an ‘unexplained and unfathomable flurry of activity’. Conway’s approach could scarcely be more different. Here, music and mise en scène work their magic, aided by Frankie Bradshaw’s clear-cut designs and Rory Beaton’s bold lighting - how apt for an opera whose hero is the epitome of Enlightenment values.

Idamante Chorus Ilia.jpgCatherine Carby (Idamante), ETO Chorus, Galina Averina (Ilia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Beaton’s lighting schemes pit strong primary and complementary hues against each other. Colours transmute - aquamarine and orange, purple and red - sometimes with a swiftness matching the briskness with which many of Mozart’s arias follow the recitative, elsewhere more organically. The palette and brightness, by turns intensified and muted, evoke locale - the infinite ocean, a waterfront, the stormy sky - and mirror inner passions.

The stage is quite foreshortened by an imposing edifice which stretches its length, but a mosaic-bordered exit stage-right suggests a depth beyond - what Conway describes as ‘a doorway leading to something suggesting culture’ - and sliding panels concertina to open up vistas, revealing the Cretan populace, who suffer as a result of their ruler’s failings, and the captured Trojans who are confined in a prison evoked by a slanting panel which tilts menacingly. The ETO Chorus, though distanced for much of the production - placed ‘beyond’ the struggles within the court, but no less affected by them - were in strong voice.

CTurner Idomeneo.jpgChristopher Turner (Idomeneo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The cast, too, offered consistently fine Mozartian singing. As Idamante, mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby made us feel each and every of the young Prince’s emotional twists and turns. This Idamante wore his heart on his tunic-ed sleeve and Carby acted and sang with candour, the richness of her voice particularly expressive in the recitatives. On the last few occasions that I’ve heard Christopher Turner perform (at SJSS in La Nuova Musica’s Alcina early this year, and as Pollione in Chelsea Opera Group’s Norma in 2018) I’ve been more and more impressed by the combination of focus, power and beauty that his tenor commands. He displayed plenty of ringing heroism as Idomeneo, compelling our attention: the bravura of his Act 2 aria, ‘Fuor del mar’, conveyed both the King’s regal stature and his self-inflicted anguish and fear. Turner has a strong lower range which brought out the darkness within this morally questionable monarch; but there was lyrical shapeliness too in Act 3’s beautifully shaped ‘Accogli, o re del mar’.

Ilia and set.jpgGalina Averina (Ilia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

As Ilia - the daughter of the defeated King Priam of Troy who, rescued at sea by Idamante, has fallen in love with the son of her enemy - Galina Averina had the difficult task of establishing the mood at the start of both halves of the performance, but she did so with consummate poise. Alone on stage, she opened Act 1 as a figure of loneliness and loss, curled against the wall as if trying to protect herself or escape from the conflicts within the palace and within her own heart. Averina has a lovely soft gleam to her sound, which was complemented by the woodwind quartet in Act 2’s ‘Se il padre perdei’; and, while ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ was similarly moving, Averina was able to bring urgency to her tone when required.

Elektra.jpgPaula Sides (Elettra). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Paula Sides seemed a little hesitant initially as Elettra - the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who has taken refuge among the Cretans after her brother Orestes has committed matricide, and who is Ilia’s rival for Idamante’s love - but her Act 2 aria ‘Idol mio’ was rich with emotions which exploded further in her final aria, ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace ho in seno i tormenti’. In the latter, the torments of Elettra’s own unrequited passion and of her brother’s crime fused in a glittering fiery outburst. Sides captured Elettra’s vengeful vindictiveness and her pathos; as she yearned to follow Orestes to the abyss, the shapes carved by her soprano were as sharply defined as the edge of the knife she wielded.

The roles of Arbace, the King’s counsellor, and the High Priest were amalgamated and sung with vigour and urgency by John-Colyn Geantey, though perhaps a bit less dashing about would have brought more gravity to the High Priest’s persona. As the Voice of Neptune, Ed Hawkins was fittingly resonant and imposing. The ETO Orchestra played with brio for conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny who created fluency between the recitatives and arias, which are often conjoined in the score.

Turner and priest.jpgChristopher Turner (Idomeneo) and John-Colyn Geantey (Arbace). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Heading towards disaster, Idomeneo can only hope for divine intervention and mercy. He and subjects are fortunate: it proves easier for the Cretan King to do a deal with the deities than it evidently is for some modern-day leaders to negotiate with their counterparts abroad and their ‘allies’ at home. And so, Idomeneo’s reckless promise is revoked and order restored. Idamante slays the sea monster and buries past conflicts, and while Idomeneo has to relinquish power to the next generation, the continuity of the family line is ensured, as a new world begins. If only we could be so lucky.

The regicidal Macbeth, too, might wish for similar good fortune, for in Shakespeare’s Scottish play supernatural interventions bring not reconciliation and renewal but deceit and destruction. Not that the witches in James Dacre’s production are particularly menacing, although the female Chorus sang with vigour and precision. At the start, cloaked in green habits and white aprons, this gaggle of nuns-cum-nurses tend to the wounded and lay out the dead, all the while singing of the vicious torments which they have inflicted upon the unfortunates who have crossed them. These are not Shakespeare’s ‘withered and so wild’ hags with ‘choppy fingers’, ‘skinny lips’ and ‘beards’ who emerge from mist and dissolve into darkness; nor the ‘compound’ figures in Verdi’s opera who - as shaped by the composer’s interest in the writings of Shakespeare’s German translator August Schlegel - are both emblems of the superstitious lower classes and Delphic agents of fate. Instead, this ministering brood, medicinal rather than murderous, might have looked more at home in a G&S operetta - or, when Verdi’s rum-te-tum choruses are given a cheery boost by conductor Gerry Cornelius, on the set of The Sound of Music. Thus, when Macbeth and Banquo, fresh from their trouncing of the merciless Macdonald and with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor’s limp body swinging from a noose at the rear of Frankie Bradshaw’s twilight-zone set - meet the witches for the first time, their query, ‘What are these foul beasts?’, falls rather flat.

Macbeth witches.jpg Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The representation of the witches seems to me to be central to the impact that the opera makes, especially because of the identification with the witches that Lady Macbeth’s music intimates. Christoph Clausen (in Macbeth Multiplied: Negotiating Historical and Medial Difference Between Shakespeare and Verdi) has argued that although a comic treatment of witches was the norm in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century theatre, by the mid-nineteenth century witches were depicted on stage as more sinister figures. But, even if Clausen is correct, we have Verdi’s directives to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, in letters written during September 1846, that he should ‘adopt a sublime diction, except in the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original [triviali, ma stravaganti ed originali]’. What did Verdi mean by ‘trivial’? Verdi scholar Julian Budden has claimed that the first witches’ chorus merely captures the ‘childish malice’ of the witches in Shakespeare’s play, while the second ‘has all the deliberate vulgarity of its predecessor without any of the fantasy. It is just any chorus of gipsies or peasants.’ Whatever, representing the witches as sisters of Christ doesn’t seem to me to make much sense: the witches inflict pain rather than assuage it.

The opera is presented in English and this, too, seemed to me to be misguided. Of course, exigencies of dramatic form and pace necessitated excisions which alter relationships and motivations in the opera: thus, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth becomes unequivocally a dominating demon rather than just an instigator, encourager and accomplice, and she is the mastermind of the plot to murder Banquo, rather than a caring wife pushed aside by her increasingly isolated and sick husband. Also, Verdi was himself more influenced by the various Italian translations of Shakespeare than directly by the Bard’s text itself, although, in the face of criticisms of his libretto, Verdi wrote to Léon Escudier, his French publisher (April 1865), complaining that although he was accused of not ‘knowing his Shakespeare’, ‘in this they are very wrong. It may be said that I have not rendered Macbeth well, but that I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t feel Shakespeare-no, by God, no. He is a favourite poet of mine, whom I have had in my hands from earliest youth, and whom I read and reread constantly.’

ETO Macbeth set.jpgPhoto credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The point here, though, is that Andrew Porter’s translation is a prosaic paraphrase of Shakespeare’s poetry which reduces the emotive impact of the words. For example, Macbeth sees ‘gouts of blood’ upon the blade and dudgeon of the hallucinated dagger: why change this to ‘drops of blood’? End-of-scene summaries are also offered; but surely there can be few in the audience who are unfamiliar with the basic plot. An Italian text would have retained the lyricism and rendered an emotional heightening of the tragedy.

What Dacre’s production does do successfully is to bring the political rather than the personal to the fore: after all, premiered in Florence in 1847, at the height of unrest about Italian reunification, Macbeth surely articulates Verdi’s devotion to Italian independence and his abhorrence of the tyrannical abuse of power. Bradshaw’s set is a concrete bunker, which harbours secret niches and nooks, permitting intrigue and, in the Grand scena and duet in Act 1, intimacy. Infernal intrusion, too, when the ghost of Banquo - bloodstained but not quite shaking ‘gory locks’ at the hysterical Macbeth - imposes himself behind the throne positioned and raised in the central recess. CCTV cameras capture the corruption, and attest to Macbeth’s paranoia; until, that is, a black-clad assassin disables them prior to Banquo’s murder.

Dacre updates the drama to the modern age: Macbeth and Banquo swap their officers’ regalia for sharp suits, while Lady Macbeth sports attire suggesting executive power. As rag-bag mercenaries in combat fatigues, beanies and balaclavas dash about the stage, the effect is pacy and punchy - though I winced when Ruger MK I’s were waved menacing at the mention of swords and daggers.

M and LM.jpgMadeleine Pierard (Lady Macbeth) and Grant Doyle (Macbeth). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The singing, too, provides much enjoyment. As Lady Macbeth, Madeleine Pierard may not comply with Verdi’s request for ugly, declamatory sounds and hollow whispers, but she does make a good effort to use vocal colour to portray complexity of character and the dangerous energies of Lady Macbeth’s inner life. There’s a false note in the sleep-walking scene, though, when Lady Macbeth puts out her own light, for the taper that she carries - she has light by her continually; ‘tis her command’, so her Gentlewoman tells us - is her only defence against the darkness which she has summoned and delighted in and which now consumes and terrorises her.

Macduff is reduced to a minor role by Piave and Verdi, but Amar Muchhala makes his aria count, singing expressively and with dramatic impact. Andrew Slater is vocally woolly-edged as Banquo but he establishes a nice rapport with Dara Gibo’s Fleance, the latter’s suitably guileless and vulnerable demeanour evoking a pathos which is rare in this production.

Banquo and Fleance.jpgAndrew Slater (Banquo) and Dara Gibo (Fleance). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

ETO regular Grant Doyle rages and rampages as Macbeth but achieves volume at the expense of subtlety of characterisation and nuance of vocal line. This is a broad-stroke interpretation, and while Doyle has an appealing baritone it feels pushed to the limit at times here; there is little sense of the interior life - the conscience and guilt which make Macbeth a ‘man’ rather than just a murderous tyrant. Even his final aria, ‘Mal per me che m’affidai’, though sung with intensity and focus, did not quite capture the sense that this is a turning-point, a moment when Macbeth truly regrets his actions recognising that they have brought him a ‘power’ which is transient and false, and that he has denied himself the honour, love, obedience and friendship which should accompany old age.

Cornelius keeps the action surging forward and, attentive of the details of orchestration, conjures the dark tinta of the score.

English Touring Opera’s 2019 Spring Tour continues until June 1st.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Idomeneo

Ilia - Galina Averina, Idamante - Catherine Carby, Idomeneo - Christopher Turner, Arbace - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Elettra - Paula Sides, The Voice of Neptune - Ed Hawkins; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, ETO Chorus and Orchestra.

Hackney Empire, London; Friday 8th March 2019.

Verdi: Macbeth

Macbeth - Grant Doyle, Lady Macbeth - Madeleine Pierard, Banquo - Andrew Slater, Macduff - Amar Muchhala, Malcolm - David Lynn, Lady-in-Waiting - Tanya Hurst, Doctor - Ed Hawkins; Director - James Dacre, Conductor - Gerry Cornelius, Designer - Frankie Bradshaw, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, ETO Chorus and Orchestra.

Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 9th March 2019.

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):