Prom 72, Royal Albert Hall, 5th September 2012, Mark Pullinger
According to the book (or at least the Proms Guide), this was the first performance of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Proms in the opera’s 25-year history. For one of the most important operas of the last quarter of the twentieth century, this might come as something of a surprise, although major opera houses have also been slow on the uptake – the first production at the Met only took place last season (February 2011). To add to the sense of occasion, the Royal Albert Hall helped to create its very own People’s Republic of Kensington beneath scarlet-lit acoustic mushrooms, although surely a trick was missed in not transforming the programme/ libretto to Mao’s Little Red Book for the evening.
Grimeborn Festival, Arcola Tent, 31st August 2012, Miranda Jackson
It’s great that the Arts Council has awarded the Arcola Theatre £1 million in capital funding to enable it to continue its aim of programming work by contemporary, challenging new writers and emerging directors. Sadly for this critic, the theatre doesn’t reopen until later this month, so for the 2012 Grimeborn Opera Festival, we had to make do with the Arcola Tent. Frankly I’d rather have sat in the partially-refurbished surroundings of the Theatre, rather as you do at Wilton’s Music Hall, than endure the lack of facilities at the Arcola Tent. It made me think longingly of my experience at the other contemporary opera festival at Riverside Studios less than a month before.
Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 28th August 2012, John E de Wald
The Marriage of Figaro has a rich history of performance at Glyndebourne. It was the first work performed when the house opened in May 1934 and when the gleaming wood of the newly built opera house welcomed its first guests sixty years later, it was again Figaro that bid the salutational nod. One can be forgiven for believing the house’s relationship with Mozart’s most humane opera the product of more than mere chance. There is something in the work’s elegance, beauty, and overwhelming jubilance that forms an apt complement to black ties and champagne picnics amidst the sun-dappled lawns of the East Sussex countryside.
State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide, 25th August 2012, Sandra Bowdler
What’s not to like about Offenbach’s comic operas? Clearly some people don’t enjoy them that much, and would rather see Les contes d’Hoffmann, but it’s a rare audience that doesn’t respond with delight to a decent production of Orphée (maybe the Hoffmann devotees just stay away). This State Opera of South Australia version, “restudied” from an earlier Opera Australia production, is more than decent, and received a rapturous reception from the first night audience, starting with the first joke, and responding not just to the laughs, but the spirited rendition of Offenbach’s infectious music. It was sung in English in an entertaining and risqué translation which just barely stays on this side of vulgar. Many witty turns of phrase were produced, including Pluto’s fear that Eurydice would render his life an “earth on hell”.
Prom 55, Royal Albert Hall, 24th August 2012, Dominic Wells
Perhaps more than any other composer, the world of British opera is indebted to the figure of Britten, a debt which will no doubt be widely acknowledged next year when, together with Verdi and Wagner, he will enjoy the praise and promotion that accompanies the mantle of an anniversary (the centenary of his birth). Even as a confirmed Brittenite, I cannot pretend every operatic offering this composer penned was a masterpiece. While The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Billy Budd can hold their heads up high among Britten fans, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Gloriana, and the ‘TV opera’ Owen Wingrave are much harder to sell, despite some very effective moments. But there is one work which time and again seems to blow all of these out of the water – a work that has enjoyed unanimous success not only among Britten fans but also with those who would rarely (if ever) be found attending any of the aforementioned operas: Peter Grimes.
Glyndebourne Festival, 23rd August 2012, Mark Pullinger
Composed fifteen years apart, Ravel’s one act operas were never intended as a double bill, yet their very different natures and the contrasting productions by Laurent Pelly, drawing on bawdy humour, Gallic charm and a sense of the surreal, make for a triumphant conclusion to the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival season. Neither opera is exactly a star vehicle for singers, allowing Pelly’s stagecraft to take the spotlight, along with the impeccable London Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazushi Ono, ensuring Ravel’s Spanish rhythms are suitably flexed.
Les Arts Florissant, Edinburgh Festival, 17th August 2012, Kelvin Holdsworth
This production of Charpentier’s biblical epic David et Jonathas at the Edinburgh Festival is a showcase for some exquisite vocal work which is delivered despite an incoherent dramatic interpretation which does nothing to aid a modern appreciation of the work at hand.
From the moment the curtain rises, the interpretation of this piece (stage production by Andreas Homoki) that we are going to be subjected to is clear. The cast stand motionless staring out at the audience in vaguely middle-eastern dress. Then, as the music proceeds they separate out into two groups, one on either side of the stage. Our eyes look them over and realise that they are in fact wearing different dress. The men on one side of the stage (the Hebrews) are wearing black felt hats. The men on the other side (the Philistines) are wearing fezes.
Tete à Tete Opera Festival, 12th August 2012, Miranda JacksonA couple of years ago, critic Rupert Christiansen wrote ‘Opera fans with open minds, patience, a sense of humour and no preconceptions should make their way to the friendly and funky festival run by Tête à Tête at the Riverside Studios.’ As a devotee of contemporary opera in all its forms and in all spaces, I wanted to sample some of the work being done by Tête à Tête under the artistic guidance of Bill Bankes-Jones. Six years ago Tête à Tête brought together over a hundred artistic contributors to create an opera on the hoof. Since then more than 150 groups of artistic collaborators have had the chance to showcase their creations under the umbrella of Tête à Tête with the over-arching aims of nurturing the creators, refreshing the art form and making the genre of opera, which some of us are passionate about, accessible to anyone.
Opera North, Edinburgh International Festival, 11th August 2012, Kelvin Holdsworth
Janacek’s strange opera The Makropulos Case is a curious mix of psychological horror and puzzling fantasy. Who is the central character Emilia Marty and what gives her so much knowledge of the affairs of others? Opera North’s new production at the Edinburgh Festival is a stirring attempt to showcase and make sense of a difficult plot which has naught for our comfort whilst taking us on a compelling and exciting musical ride.
Puccini Festival, Torre del Lago, 10th August 2012, Nicola Lischi
Originally created for the 2000 Festival Pucciniano of Torre del Lago, the Madama Butterfly production by Vivien Alexandra Hewitt, has toured three continents in its two versions (for outdoor and indoor venues), receiving accolades in towns as varied as Baltimore, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Wiesbaden. Ms. Hewitt, along with the sculptor/set designer Kan Yasuda, accentuated the universality of the opera, setting it in a largely empty and abstract space, almost completely devoid of all that “Japonaiserie” that so often stifles the message of this masterpiece, and the result is a stark, minimalistic production that strips away much of the familiar trappings of this east-meets-west opera. The story has not been touched, but the presentation has been given a distinctive look and atmosphere.
Puccini Festival, Torre del Lago, 9th August 2012, Nicola Lischi
La Bohème returned to the Festival Pucciniano in the production by Maurizio De Mattia inaugurated and already reviewed last season. I did not find it fully convincing the first time around and this second viewing confirmed my mostly negative impressions. It is a mise-en-scène that while trying to balance tradition and innovation, fails to find an original identity. There are pure crowd-pleasing scenes, like the whole Act II, where the sheer number of supernumeraries employed screams a Zeffirellesque imitation at all costs. The biggest problem remains the big oppressing Eiffel Tower, or better, its base, under which the whole opera takes place. The result is that the elements that should be suggestive of the setting of each single scene are almost piled up without apparent criteria.
Glyndebourne, 9th August 2012, Mark Pullinger
‘The most ridiculous play I ever saw in my life,’ was Samuel Pepys’s diary verdict on seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1662, possibly echoing Hippolyta’s verdict on the performance put on by the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s play: ‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.’ Purcell’sThe Fairy Queen of 1692 is a strange juxtaposition of the play and a masque, with the composer setting not a single line of the Bard’s text, but creating a musical entertainment to conclude each act. Using a bowdlerized version of the play – anonymously done, but the finger points at theatre manager Thomas Betterton – on which to tack on a series of musical entertainments may be seen to add to the silliness. Jonathan Kent’s exuberant 2009 production, revived here, revels in such madness, throwing in such disparate characters as a grumbling vicar, a fish-headed gondolier, Adam and his pole-dancing Eve, and a warren of bonking bunnies which had the Glyndebourne audience in tears of laughter.
Torre del Lago, 28th July 2012, Nicola Lischi
Although it was not the first time that Puccini Festival had presented works written by other composers (many years ago Il tabarro was paired with Cavalleria rusticana, and even Strauss’ Salome was once welcomed on the shores of the Massaciuccoli Lake), the 58th edition of the famed Festival will be remembered for its first offering of a Verdi opera. It was less an artistic decision than a contigent necessity. Plagued by the notorious financial problems, the Festival has decided to engage in co-productions, such as this La traviata, which will be staged in other Tuscan opera houses this autumn season.
Opera Australia, Sydney, 31st July 2012, Mark Pullinger
Southampton Marina isn’t exactly Sydney Harbour, but it had to suffice for this delayed UK cinema screening of Francesca Zambello’s outdoor production of Verdi’s La traviata for Opera Australia. Taking place on the Harbour, in front of the iconic Sydney Opera House, this was billed as a spectacular production. Traviata wouldn’t be many people’s idea of an opera ripe for a grand Cecil B DeMille treatment, but Zambello has one great coup which benefits from the vast setting. Her set – something between a picture frame and a giant silver tea-tray – is sparsely populated; a long table for Violetta’s party; what must be the world’s longest Chesterfield sofa for Act II Scene I; and a bed for the final scene. The coup is a nine metre tall Swarovski chandelier which dominates the stage and into which Violetta secures herself during ‘Sempre libera’ to be hoisted high above the floating stage.
West Australian Opera, Perth, 19th July 2012, Sandra Bowdler
Lucia di Lammermoor is a great vehicle for Emma Matthews, Australia’s undisputed bel canto diva. The production dates from some time in the Pleistocene, well 1980, when it was created in Sydney by the Australian Opera (as it then was) for Joan Sutherland. The original director was John Copley. It was broadcast live (with the Dame) in February 1986 and issued as a commercial video, and has been seen on many stages around Australia since, its last airing in Perth being in 1998 with Joanna Cole.
Prom 11, Royal Albert Hall, 22nd July 2012, Mark Pullinger
It’s no great surprise that when an ensemble decamps from the opera house to the concert hall, the musical results are often more focused, unshackled by the constraints of a production – in this case a David McVicar staging which ranged from ‘superficial’ to ‘spectacular’ according to whichever newspaper you read (and it was only newspapers which were granted press tickets, hence no official Opera Britannia review). For what it’s worth, I found McVicar’s staging very much ‘a game of two halves’, with The Capture of Troy far more compelling than an attractive, but dramatically stunted Carthage, so eagerly anticipated this concert performance, which didn’t disappoint. The real surprise was how many seats in the Royal Albert Hall were empty, the Arena spacious enough to drive the production’s nostril-flaring, fire-breathing Trojan horse through with room for manoeuvre!
Torre del Lago, 20th July 2012, Nicola Lischi
As I mentioned in a recent article, this year the Puccini Festival ran the serious risk of not taking place at all. Originally, it was supposed to present all new productions; then, once the financial picture was becoming clearer, the Festival’s newly appointed General Manager, Giuseppe Ferrazza, had no choice but make do with old, tried and true mise-en-scènes. Until a few weeks ago, even this appeared not to be enough to rescue the season, as the Central Government withdrew the promised funds. Fortunately local governments and banks chipped in and, at least for this year, Puccini’s immortal music was able to echo once more in front of the composer’s home.
Opera Holland Park, 20th July 2012, Mark Pullinger
The ample girth of Sir John Falstaff has already graced one operatic stage in London this summer and I did fear for this new Opera Holland Park production following in the footsteps (and hoof-prints) of Robert Carsen’s riotous 1950s sit-com staging at Covent Garden. Annilese Miskimmon shunts the action to post-World War I Britain with Falstaff and his cronies inhabiting what appears to be a sanatorium for retired or convalescing soldiers. With Windsor populated by a veritable prudence of vicars, no opportunity for farce goes unturned, much of the rumbustious comedy physical in nature, yet there are also moments of incredible bitterness, making this an occasionally dark Falstaff. That balance between slapstick and darkness doesn’t always sit comfortably.
Jette Parker Young Artists, Royal Opera, 19th July 2012, Mark Pullinger
Here was a great wheeze that would potentially have had Rossini chortling: aristocrats from across Europe gather for a major event, only to be thwarted by local transport problems. Timed to coincide with the build-up to the Olympics, a concert performance of Il viaggio a Reims doesn’t exactly auger well for Transport for London’s ability to handle the logistical challenges ahead in the next three weeks. Written specifically to mark the coronation of Charles X of France in 1825, Rossini never envisaged Il viaggio being revived at all so, great recycler that he was, filched about half the music for Le comte Ory. Four performances were given at the Théâtre Italien, Paris, with Giuditta Pasta as Corinna, the Roman poetess. Reconstructed by Janet Johnson and Philip Gossett in the 1970s, the opera was next performed in Pesaro under Claudio Abbado, performances which were captured on an award-winning recording. The opera’s debut at Covent Garden finally came in 1992, Carlo Rizzi conducting a cast including Montserrat Caballé, Renée Fleming and Sylvia McNair. Although not accorded a staging, this concert performance celebrated ten years of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme by inviting back ten alumni to join the present intake. I doubt Rossini would have been impressed by the results.
Opera Holland Park, 13th July 2012, Mark Pullinger
One of cinema's most captivating images occurs in David Lean’s 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago, where Yuri and Lara escape the hounding Bolsheviks to Varykino, former home of the Gromeko family. In the jaws of a Russian winter, it has been engulfed in snow – a glistening ice palace – which Zhivago has to sweep from the desk to compose his poetry. Well strike up the balalaika if Leslie Travers’ set design didn’t remind me of that very scene before a note of this new production of Yevgeny Onegin was heard. We’re in an enormous reception room, abandoned to the elements, where snow shrouds the outsized furniture; bookcase and wardrobe lurch precariously; a chandelier has crashed to the floor; a grand piano is severed at the legs, serving as writing desk. Zhivago is set at that crossroads in Russian history which is the Revolution and parallels are felt here, with a dramatic leap to Lenin’s Soviet state in Act III, although the signals were there from the unrest displayed by the peasants paying their rent to Madame Larina in the opera’s first scene.
The Royal Opera, 12th July 2012, Antony Lias
Glorious, absolutely glorious. That’s the only fitting way to describe the staggering opening night performance of Otello atThe Royal Opera. Being a mere snip of an opera-goer at 38 years of age, I can’t claim to have heard some of the illustrious roll call who have performed the roles of both Otello and Desdemona, but their recorded legacy lives on, giving me some justification in saying that Anja Harteros is not only today’s indisputable Prima Donna Assoluta, but she is also arguably the greatest exponent of Desdemona to have graced the stage of Covent Garden. Aleksandrs Antonenko was breathtaking in scale and in temperament, no doubt the finest, unhinged Otello since Vickers and McCracken. Together they were the stuff of operatic dreams. By the end of the evening I was emotionally shattered, which believe me, takes an awful lot of doing.
Linbury Theatre, 30th June 2012, Miranda Jackson
It is always a pleasure to hear the latest crop of singers selected to participate in the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists programme. Those selected, although they receive the benefit of training and mentoring on every level, are salaried members of the Royal Opera House Company and act as cover for principal roles on the main stage as well as undertaking minor principal roles. Daniel Grice (baritone,) for example, I have already seen as Fiorello in Il barbiere di Siviglia on the main stage and both he and Anna Devin left a lasting impression in L’isola disabitata in autumn 2010. Last year Hanna Hipp (mezzo), Pablo Bemsch(tenor) and ZhengZhong Zhou (baritone) each made an impact in Le portrait de Manon and Susana Gaspar (soprano) stole the show in the bizarre staging of Nuits d’été.
A round-up of events at the 2012 Festival, Sandra Bowdler
The 2012 Internationale Handel-Festspiele Göttingen was under new management – a new artistic director, Laurence Cummings, and a new general manager, Tobias Wolff. If perhaps a little lighter in quantity than in previous years, the Festival was very high in quality, and very well-received, promising an exciting future. Cummings is of course well known in his home country as (inter alia) the director of the London Handel Festival, a conductor and a harpsichordist. The new intendant is the German-born, Cambridge educated Tobias Wolff who came from a position as acting manager of Theater & Philharmonie Thüringen Gera and Altenburg; a violist with an MBA, what could be better?
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 26th June 2012, Nicola Lischi
In 2008 and 2009 the Fondazione del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino presented two autumn mini-seasons called “Recondite Armonie” with the clear intention of entrusting to the same stage director some of the most popular opera in traditional, uncontroversial productions, as a counterpoint to the less familiar fare normally offered during the annual spring Festival. The experiment paid off handsomely; all the performances played to capacity and a couple of those operas have already been re-presented in the current season, Tosca last February and now La traviata, which, together with the two other Verdi “popular trilogy” works, was first presented in 2009. The whole trilogy was staged by Franco Ripa di Meana, aided byEdoardo Sanchi (sets) and Silvia Aymonino(costumes), who transposed the action ofTraviata to the end of the 19th century, something that was perhaps innovative when Luchino Visconti did it in his historical mise-en-scène at La Scala with Maria Callas, but has now become one more common place. There were other Visconti quotations: Violetta kicking off her shoes during her Act I aria, and the gypsy girls and matadors interpreted by the guests at Flora’s party.
La Fenice, Venice, 24th June 2012, Nicola Lischi
Carmen is the opera to which Calixto Bieito, the celebrated as well as controversial Spanish stage director, has perhaps turned to more frequently in his career. Since its first appearance in 1999 for the Festival of Perelada, Bieito has slightly modified his powerful vision of Bizet masterpiece at almost every revival (and there have been many, all over Europe), while keeping faithful to the basic conception. As he himself stated, he long searched for the right inspiration through long journeys in Andalusia that did not yield the results he was hoping for. It was on the contrary the border between Ceuta ( a Spanish enclave)s and Morocco, that offered the key idea of his production, a huge square where the smugglers’ cars, all Mercedes- Benz from the early ‘70s, stop as they wait to conclude their business.
English National Opera, 25th June 2012, Carla Finesilver
During the introduction to Dr Dee, a series of English stereotypes parade along a balcony, including bowler-hatted banker, impressively-coiffed punk rocker, and Morris dancers. Oh no – was it going to be the worst kind of twee celebration of ‘Englishness’ dredged up in honour of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad? Fortunately, it was nothing of the kind. Structured in the form of an Elizabethan masque, the opera consists of a series of formalised tableaux based on incidents and themes from the life of Dr John Dee (probably best known as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I), and can be thought of in the tradition of the Portrait Opera, a visual and musical representation of one charismatic character - the closest ancestor perhaps being Satyagraha(Gandhi). Returning for a moment to the parade of Englishness, unless I somehow missed him, James Bond wasn’t in the team, which is a shame, as John Dee was actually the first spy to use the moniker 007.
Opera Holland Park, 22nd June 2012, John E de Wald
As Gianni Schicchi implacably rolls a cigarette at the end of Opera Holland Park’s new production of Puccini’s one-acter bearing the character's name, he begs the audience to look to the extenuating circumstances of his roguish behaviour and forgive him his earthly transgressions. True, the poet Dante may have consigned him to the eighth circle of hell in hisDivine Comedy for posturing as a dead man in order to rewrite his will in his own favour. Yet as his elated daughter and her lover, only now free to marry, embrace on a parapet overlooking Florence, the moon shining above them, he asks for forgiveness in recognition of what he has done for them. Such is the power of Puccini’s music and his libretto’s comedy that we allow him this without hesitation.
English National Opera, 18th June 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
There is in this new production at the Coliseum of Britten’s most uncompromisingly bleak and uncomfortably cryptic opera a pair of star turns of such pole-axing power that they needs must be mentioned first: that of the ENO’s orchestra, and its chorus. Under their firebrand Music Director, Edward Gardner, they reach heights of expressive intensity I have never heard equalled in this opera. And for them alone, revelling in the opportunities provided by the score, a trip to St. Martin’s Lane is most strongly advised.
Opera North, 16th June 2012, Katy Thomson
Due to the epic scale of much of Wagner’s music there is a real danger for performances to be so earth-shattering that they often end up being ear-shattering as well. His operas can be so intense, too much for too long, that they can be quite difficult to engage with unless you are a card-carrying member of the Wagner fan club. One of the many advantages of Opera North’s four year plan to perform the Ring Cycle on a concert platform is that the venues are large enough for the musicians to ‘let rip’, as it were, without losing a sense of focus and clarity. Indeed, so much of Wagner’s creativity lies in the effect it has on one’s imagination. Without the complication of dangerous sets, as in Robert Lepage’s production at the New York Met last year, the listener is allowed to be transported to their own image of the sound-scape which Wagner creates.
Opera Theatre Company, 9th June 2012, Terry Blain
It matters where you stage opera. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was originally performed in a room of the ducal palace at Mantua, the instrumentalists located onstage at the same level as the singers. The 430-seat, triple-tiered Theatre Royal, Waterford, tastefully renovated as recently as 2009, doesn’t have quite that cosy domesticity, but its stage width is approximately that thought to have been available to Monteverdi at the 1607 premiere, and most spectators are a similar distance from the performers as were the original audience in the Mantuan apartment.
Opera Holland Park, 8th June 2012, John E de Wald
Così fan tutte proves itself time and again one of the more difficult operas in the repertoire to stage successfully, an ideal production bearing much in common with that elusive Arabian phoenix Don Alfonso likens woman’s constancy to in the first scene. As that great manipulator of men and women alike might say, everyone swears it exists, but no one can say quite where; and where much of the plot remains unsettling, riddled with deceit and undertones of sexism, one cannot escape the knowledge that a good performance of this complicated work can be one of the pinnacles of opera. Though Harry Fehr’s new production for Opera Holland Park does not quite surmount all the problems inherent in the piece, it does much to present its themes lucidly and without unnecessary embellishment. In this, it can only be judged a success and a very good start to Opera Holland Park’s 2012 season.
Opera Holland Park, 7th June 2012, Sebastian Petit
Donizetti’s masterpiece is a big ask, even for the most prestigious international opera companies, so it was courageous and enterprising of Opera Holland Park to take it on as their opening production of the season. And, all credit to the company, it was in the main a musical success with a strong roster of soloists, excellent chorus and a strong orchestral showing. The weather appeared to be channelling Scott/Cammarano’s tragic arc - the audience arrived in watery sunshine but, as the opera’s events darkened into tragedy, the skies filled with ominous black clouds and the gales rose to a point where even the lighting rig trembled!
Welsh National Opera, 6th June 2012, Bethan Dudley Fryar
Welsh National Opera’s new production of La bohème has considerably striking verve, delineation and a whiff of the magical – no mean feat, as the old production was a cherished, adored and respected jewel in the WNO crown. The zippy use of projection design creates a graphic designed modernism, and echoes the swooping kaleidoscopic cinematography of Baz Luhrmann’s musical film, Moulin Rouge. This new production places the characters within a relatively minimal set design but has flashes of beauty and pathos to highlight the unfolding tragedy with direct assuredness.
Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg, 22nd May 2012, Sandra Bowdler
This performance of Farnace tends to reinforce what I’ve suggested before, that the jury is still out on the performability of Vivaldi operas. In this case, I tend towards thinking that this is not the best production to assess that issue, but then we are rarely presented with ideal cases. A recent recording of Farnace presented, for the first time, the 1739 version prepared for Ferrara but never in fact performed there. Previous recordings featured the 1731 Pavia version; the 1727 Venetian first version is now lost.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 5th June 2012, Nicola Lischi
The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino confirms its strong and time-honoured ties with Béla Bartók with a diptych consisting of one of the two ballets the Hungarian composer wrote, The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin,) and his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), which had its Italian premiere in Florence in 1938. This final offering of the 75th Maggio is a co-production with the Saito Kinen Festival of Japan. The mise-en-scène and choreography are entrusted to Jo Kanamori, a Japanese dancer, choreographer and producer with a strong European formation.
The Royal Opera, 31st May 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Rack my brains as I may to try and find something halfway positive to say about this second revival of David McVicar’s 2008 staging of Strauss’s most sourly sensuous score, still I draw little more than a blank. The production strikes me as a frigid, unatmospheric and stilted mess: and the singing is, virtually without exception, depressingly poor and approximate, from a bellowingly pitch-free First Soldier right up the painfully inadequate Salome herself, who only gets through the final scene at all by dint of sheer body-shaking will-power and what thin, screeching shards of voice are by then left to her.
Grange Park Opera, 31st May 2012, Mark Pullinger
Festival Season is upon us once again. Situated in picturesque Hampshire landscape, Grange Park Opera is perhaps the most idyllic of them all. The Doric portico at the Greek temple eastern end of the mansion looms majestically over picnickers on the verdant sward below and the atmosphere is stylish without being stuffy. Its venerable cousin, Glyndebourne, opened a fortnight ago, Garsington this weekend, Holland Park next Thursday and Buxton in July. Festival seasons offer opportunities to delve into the operatic vaults to rustle up the sort of rarity the main companies wouldn’t touch with a bargepole – Zanetto,L’Olimpiade, La Périchole, Intermezzo andL’enfant et les sortileges all get outings this summer. Grange Park’s 2012 season doesn’t deviate from the operatic mainstream – Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades surely cannot qualify as a rarity these days – but in staging Madama Butterfly, it’s laying down the gauntlet to the ‘big boys’ in much the same manner that it did with last season’s Tristan und Isolde with a similar rate of success.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28th May 2012, Mark Pullinger
With the Olympic torch currently zig-zagging the country, it’s hardly surprising that L’Olimpiade is taking operatic centre stage at the moment. Vivaldi’s opera was recently heard at the Lufthansa Baroque Festival, before heading for the Buxton Festival, while a rival staging opens at Garsington next weekend. Vivaldi’s 1734 opera, although relatively rare, is perhaps the most well known setting of Pietro Metastasio’s libretto set in the Ancient Greek Olympics, which was written for a staging with music by Antonio Caldara the previous year. It was a popular libretto, set by many composers in the 18th century. Rather than Vivaldi’s opera, what the Venice Baroque Orchestra presents here, however, is a ‘pasticcio’ or patchwork of arias from sixteen different composers, including one by the Red Priest himself, to Metastasio’s original libretto.
Teatro Goldoni, Florence, 25th May 2012
One of the most laudable initiatives of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is its yearly tradition of commissioning a new opera from an Italian composer with an Italian libretto, and this time the honour was bestowed on a thirty-six year old female composer, Silvia Colasanti.
Since the fil rouge of this year’s Festival is the Mitteleuropean culture, Franz Kafka was almost an inescapable choice, though at first sight, his Metamorphosis, with its peculiar subject of a man who has turned into a cockroach while maintaining human thoughts and feelings, does not seem like the most obvious work to serve as the basis for an opera.
Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, 18th May 2012, Nicola Lischi
Anything breaking the indestructible and trite bond between Cavalleria rusticanaand Pagliacci is welcome to me, and so I was glad when the Teatro Carlo Felice announced that it was pairing the Mascagni evergreen with a contemporary one-act opera entitled Che fine ha fatto la piccola Irene? (Whatever happened to baby Irene?). The link between these two works is their “Sicilianness”. If Cavalleria– as we all know – is set in Sicily, the new opera (new for Genoa, as it premiered a few years ago in Siena) was based on a short story by author/stage director/scriptwriter Andrea Camilleri, and set to music by Marco Betta, both born in the largest Mediterranean island and closely identified with it.
English National Opera, 25th May 2012, Dominic Wells
The Roman Emperor Caligula was one of the earliest recorded autocrats, known for his short temper, insatiable (and sometimes incestuous) lust, extreme sadism and erratic behaviour, which included ordering troops to gather sea shells during a campaign against Britain. This example is just one of many eccentricities the emperor supposedly exhibited (some of which are almost certainly spurious), and such displays of character led certain members of the senate (and subsequently historians) to question his sanity. However, Prof Peter Wiseman, a classicist from the University of Exeter, is among many who believe that Caligula knew exactly what he was doing, and that he simply exploited to the full the possibilities for absolute power and self-indulgence.
The Royal Opera, 15th May 2012, Mark Pullinger
‘All the world’s a jest’ quips Falstaff, kicking off the ‘devil of a fugue’ (to steal from Elgar) which concludes Verdi’s final opera as his characters are packed off to supper. They are no longer in conflict and class distinctions are (briefly?) forgotten in Robert Carsen’s outstanding new Royal Opera production as impoverished aristocracy and the ‘nouveau riche’ are united around the banqueting table. A fugue can be regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, like Falstaff’s concept of ‘honour’ expounded in Act I, but it provides a unifying resolution to the comic twists and turns in the Merry Wives’ bid to serve Sir John with his comeuppance. In this Golden Jubilee year, Carsen shunts the opera to the new Elizabethan age of the 1950s, an updating which works brilliantly,Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s tweeds and scarlet foxhunting jackets replacing traditional doublet and hose. I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a new Royal Opera production quite so much.
English National Opera, 8th May 2012, Mark Pullinger
Madam Butterfly is one of two operas virtually guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of this traditionally stony-hearted critic (The Cunning Little Vixen is the other, should you be interested, so Glyndebourne should be on flood alert!). However, throughout this second ENO revival of Anthony Minghella’s classy staging, my tear ducts remained in a state of drought. Why? This is an incredibly stylish, glossy Butterfly, opulently costumed (Han Feng) against a largely bare stage, albeit sleek and lacquered. Michael Levine’s set has a steep rake creating a hill towards the rear over which most of the characters make their entrances and exits, often to spectacular visual effect. Acting is well directed (Sarah Tipple) and truthful; the singing, for the most part, excellent. This is, in short, a highly polished production, so why did it so utterly fail to move me?
Opera North, Leeds, 5th May 2012, Geoffrey Mogridge
The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein may be too schmaltzy for some tastes but there's no denying their enduring appeal. Director Jo Davies whose production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore for Opera North did much to rehabilitate the piece has now taken on the famously weepy musical Carousel, arguably the schmaltziest of schmaltz - although in my book The Sound of Music would earn the palm by a whisker. And then there's the problem of THAT song - "You'll Never Walk Alone" - hijacked by Gerry and the Pacemakers back in 1963, adopted by Liverpool F.C soon afterwards and ever since then, just about the world's best loved anthem. Stephen Sondheim once said thatOklahoma (the partnership's first great success) is about a picnic whilst Carousel is about life and death - and one might add - a love that is lost.
Barbican Theatre, 4th May 2012, Carla Finesilver
Two women sit at a desk, staring at us, motionless apart from their hands tracing quick rhythmic movements in the air. One is reciting poetry, the other interjecting a string of numbers, above a low-pitched organ hum. The woman reciting poetry is doing so in the pleasant but emotionally neutral tone of modern speech-synthesising software; the woman reciting numbers does so with humanity and expression in every one. Something is wrong: poetry woman starts to stutter – not a human stutter, but an android showing the first signs of malfunction. I don’t know what it means, but I’m gripped. And the performance proper hasn’t even begun yet.
Metropolitan Opera, 4th May 2012, Eli Jacobson
In the last weeks of the Metropolitan Opera Season the real event was not the first presentation of the full cycles of the Lepage
. Instead it was the revival of two twentieth century works returning after long absences strongly cast with major role debuts – Benjamin Britten’s
and Leos Janàcek’s
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 4th May 2012, Nicola Lischi
Incredibile dictu, Zubin Mehta had never conducted Der Rosenkavalier before this production that marked the inauguration of the 75th edition of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Truth be told, he was scheduled to open the 1989 Maggio with this opera, but became ill and was replaced by Jiri Kout. In any event, it is surprising – to say the least – that the 76 year old maestro, a pupil of Hans Swarowsky in Vienna, and who began his continued professional relationship with the Wiener Philharmoniker in the 1950s, had not tackled this seminal, extremely popular and quintessential Viennese opera. It was worth the long wait.
Scottish Opera, Glasgow, 4th May 2012, Kelvin Holdsworth
Scottish Opera’s revival of Anthony Besch’s Tosca offers a rewarding evening, though not one without its problems. Vocally, this is a Tosca not to be missed. Unfortunately, most of the evening is marred by insensitive conducting and far too much noise from the pit.
The production itself has been a very successful one and surely owes the company no debts now. This is, believe it or not, the eighth time it has been revived and it has done more globetrotting than Scottish Opera productions usual manage, being seen as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. Such success is based on a solid, confident director who clearly knew what he was doing by updating the action to 1940s fascist Italy. It is immensely pleasing to look at and fits its shiny jackboots perfectly.
The Royal Opera, 30th April 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
The most affecting moment in this, the 24th revival of John Copley’s 1974 staging, occurred after the performance had finished, during the curtain-calls, at the end of which Copley himself was ushered onto the stage, first for a solo bow, and then – with the curtains raised again – presented with an enormous decorated cake in celebration of his fifty years’ activity as a producer at Covent Garden. Tony Hall made an enthusiastic speech in appreciation of Copley’s achievements in the House, closely observed by a silent-but-present Antonio Pappano; and then the director himself rather reluctantly took the microphone to express both his gratitude and astonishment at this unexpected homage
English National Opera, 28th April 2012, Faye Courtney
I have a great deal of empathy with the poor cursed Flying Dutchman. As I traipse around various British and European opera houses I feel doomed to never find a production of Wagner’s early masterpiece that remains truly faithful to the composer’s intentions. I’ve encountered sewing machines in the Covent Garden version, exercise bikes in Munich, a space station in Cardiff and twenty-four refrigerators in Stuttgart but never anything that truly gets to the essential heart of the piece. English National Opera’s interesting new modern dress production by Jonathan Kent is promising but flawed, although the show is redeemed by some magnificent singing and thrilling orchestral playing which ranks among the finest I’ve heard at the Coliseum.
Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, 22nd April 2012, Nicola Lischi
When this revival of Turandot was announced, there was considerable buzz generated by the debuts of two extremely popular (at least in Italy) sopranos, Daniela Dessì in the title role and Mariella Devia as Liù. The excitement was even greater considering that both are “local” glories, hailing from Liguria, the region of Genoa. While Mariella Devia dutifully reported and sang the part of the slave girl, Daniela Dessì communicated to the management of the Teatro Carlo Felice that she was not going to show up only days before the beginning of rehearsals. This time no indisposition was claimed. Simply, the soprano – as she herself said in an interview with the local paper – wished to follow her husband, tenor Fabio Armiliato, on a tour for the presentation of Woody Allen’s latest film, where Armiliato plays a starring role.
Barbican, 19th April 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
As regular readers all know, I spend any amount of my time taking trips down memory lane: now I’m going to pack you off on one instead, and refer you back to my review of Weber’s opera as performed at last year’s Proms. In it, having given an overview of the miserable provision of the greatest pre-Wagnerian German opera on London’s stages, I had this to say:
“Now, of course, after what feels like an eternity of waiting, two Der Freischützes – at least in concert – come along (almost) at once, evidently the operatic equivalent of London buses. Well, perhaps not quite. When Sir Colin Davis conducts the piece next April as part of the LSO’s 2011/12 season at the Barbican, it will be with a seriously heavyweight Wagnerian cast – including Christine Brewer and Simon O’Neill in the leads – and, as written, in German, with the original spoken dialogue (the latter I am assuming: if instead we get the services of some smart-arse narrator, in any language, I will personally commit murder).”
London Handel Festival, 20th April 2012, Miranda Jackson
Battling your way through torrential rain on a Friday night to endure no less than five hours on one of the most uncomfortable church pews in London with no refreshments provided and inadequate provision of lavatories may not sound like your idea of fun, but Ensemble Serse’s first performance of Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio since 1733 was one of the best events in this year’s London Handel Festival.
The Royal Opera, 17th April 2012, John E de Wald
La fille du régiment premiered in Paris at the Opera-Comique on 11 February 1840. Donizetti had by this point attained preeminence in France, inaugurated largely by the hugely successful premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1837. The popularity of the Italian composer was such that Berlioz, in his predominantly dismissive review of the latter work, wrote: ‘One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti.’ There is perhaps an element of irony in the ubiquity of Donizetti’s operas in the musical scene of the French capital, yet it is not terribly surprising that his buoyant melodies and virtuosic vocal writing became popular favourites with the public.
English National Opera, 16th April 2012, Miranda Jackson
This was a night of high drama. Not only did the redoubtable Andrew Shore make not one but two attempts to drown himself, one within the opening bars of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1979 opera, Jakob Lenz, but we also saw his fantasy of the drowning of a child – a little too realistic for me. When I saw the Flower Maidens in Calixto Bieito’s Parsifal dressed as post-apocolyptic victims of abuse, sporting their fur coats and drawing on their silk underwear, bound with clingfilm and parcel tape, in bright red lipstick, I thought I’d seen it all. But at the first night of Jakob Lenz we witnessed a number of near-death experiences, not just the drowning child and Lenz’s suicide attempts, but Mr Shore slipping on the mud of Annemarie Woods’ set in his frenzy, several old ladies in the front row coming close to being gassed by dry ice and Suzy Cooper, playing the haunting focus of Lenz’s fantasies dicing with death as the elevated platform on which she danced flexed ominously on its ropes.
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 14th April 2012, Mark Pullinger
Willy Decker’s spare, modern staging ofLa traviata has graced the stages of Salzburg, Amsterdam and New York over the last eight years, with a number of leading sopranos assuming the role of Violetta. Last night, it was Natalie Dessay’s turn to don the iconic little red dress at the Met. It gives me no pleasure at all to report that it was extremely moving for all the wrong reasons.
Co-Opera, Adelaide, 14th April 2012, Sandra Bowdler
Handel’s Acis and Galatea was first composed for and staged at Cannons, the stately home of the Duke of Chandos, a friend and patron of the composer, in 1718. Following pirate revivals in London in the 1830s, Handel himself presented a new extended version in 1732 in the King’s Theatre in London. This contained some new characters beyond the original five (Acis, Galatea, Polyphemus, Damon, Coridon), and new material, including Italian arias. Further revisions ensued, mostly in this bilingual form, but the 5th edition published in 1743 represents the work almost as we know it today.
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 7th April 2012, Dominic Wells
It is almost exactly five years that Anna Netrebko took on the role of Manon in Berlin (April 2007), where she was partnered by long-term collaborator, Rolando Villazón – an account immortalised on DVD, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (DG, 2008). Despite being directed by Vincent Paterson – better known for his work with Madonna and other pop stars, and also responsible for Netrebko’s cringe-worthy debut DVD,The Woman, the Voice – that Berlin Manon, set in 1950s Hollywood, works very well both visually and aurally. Many no doubt objected to Manon presented as a pole-dancing Marilyn Monroe in Act IV, but the whole production reflected the egocentric nature of her character, even if it did border on exaggeration at times.
Mariinsky at the Barbican, 3rd April 2012, Mark Pullinger
Shorn of any directorial ‘Konzept’, concert performances of Wagner’s music dramas can focus on the real drama in the music. The key work in the Mariinsky’s Holy Week UK tour is, appropriately enough, Parsifal, whose Act III ends on Good Friday. The company’s publicity machine made much of their SACD recording in their promotions leading up to this performance at the Barbican. That recording was very well received in most quarters, although cast with some key non-Russian soloists – most notably René Pape’s Gurnemanz – so how would a roster of singers drawn entirely from the Mariinsky’s ranks fare in Wagner ‘sacred stage festival play’?
The Royal Opera, 30th March 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
The more McVicar shows I see, the more it forcibly strikes me that they are highly regarded not so much for their theatrical conviction or detailed direction, but for the simple reason that they are, for the most part, left in period, for the which relief it’s not so much a case of “much thanks” but of fawningly (and unspokenly) uncritical approval. “Oh, look! Rosenkavalier left in the Rococo! Adriana with actual crinolines! Thank God! No RegieRubbish here!” And it’s a view I both understand and have sympathy with. But – and you knew that was coming – you still have to look closely at the finished result, and ask whether a largely hands-off approach to the all-important matter of setting is actually successful. And here, I think, the vast majority of his stagings fail, visually drab and undifferentiated as so many of them are, based on only patchily effective unit-set designs, and with an almost uncanny inability to realise Act IV of any opera that actually has one (that of his Figaro is a visually incoherent mess; Faust no less so; that of his Aida – admittedly rubbish throughout – spectacularly fails at even the most basic story-telling level at the end; and Adriana’s Act IV is a narrative nonsense, with the important-to-the-plot absent soprano instead apparently having taken up fully-furnished residence backstage at the Comédie Française for all apparently to ignore).
Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, 27th March 2012, Mark Pullinger
Here was Rome at its gladiatorial worst. In Britain – or should that be just London – the only booing you’re likely to hear will be aimed at a director taking his/ her first night curtain call; the most recent – and controversial – being voiced at the new (to the Royal Opera) Rusalka. Similarly, Christof Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde back in 2009 received vociferous boos from the expensive seats. Never before had I encountered it hurled towards a singer, until last night when Hulkar Sabirova’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was greeted with a barrage of booing, not from the ‘posh seats’ but from the Galleria and at decibels which made the recent Covent Garden dissenters appear tame by comparison.
London Handel Festival, 27th March 2012, Miranda Jackson
As a critic invited to the featured opera in the annual London Handel Festival hot from two excellent productions at the Wigmore Hall and Netherlands Opera I would expect to have to make allowances for young, inexperienced singers. At the Britten Theatre the LHF, in conjunction with the Royal College of Music, provide a showcase for the best of the young talent currently studying at the International Opera School. No less than eleven music coaches are credited in the programme for training these young singers in the refined art of singing opera seria. All those involved in coaching have every right to be proud: all the members of this young cast acquitted themselves admirably.
Netherlands Opera, Amsterdam, 21st March 2012, Miranda Jackson
Handel’s Deidamia (1741) is the last of Handel’s operas written for a London audience and modelled on Italian opera seria. Despite being revived in the 1950s, this opera seems to have been viewed by posterity, (certainly according to Winton Dean,) as a last whimpering gasp in the composer’s campaign to get British audiences to embrace the Venetian tradition…that is until a 2007 recording on the Virgin label directed by Alan Curtis from the harpsichord went a long way to restore this neglected opera’s reputation.
Metropolitan Opera, 20th March 2012, Eli Jacobson
Verdi’s Macbeth poses many difficult problems of style and content for the interpreters and the audience. For the composer, it shows him alternately falling back into his worst compositional impulses and hurtling far beyond his limitations with a nascent musico-dramatic genius. Macbeth will soar to heights not yet achieved by Verdi or any other composer in 1847 (and rarely achieved later) and then stumble into hurdy-gurdy banality – however it is never a boring ride. The singers have to contend with music that is solidly based in bel canto but requires them to create dramatic effects with the voice that are closer to verismo. The conductor has to deal with possibly deliberately crude music such as the witches’ choruses and the entrance march of King Duncan and then plumb the depths of the great Act I duet between Macbeth and his Lady and the sleepwalking scene. Somehow he must find a continuity which is complicated by the fact that we now perform the 1865 Paris revision of the score which contains passages that reflect Verdi’s more thorough-composed mature style. The stage director also has his hands full – how do you convincingly stage the witches’ scenes, the supernatural visions and the battle scenes?
Scottish Opera, 17th March 2012, Terry Blain
Neo-classical: musically that normally connotes clean accents, clipped phrasing, a spruce, no-nonsense approach emphasising the shape and surface beauty of formal structures, at the possible expense of inner content. That’s probably why Stravinsky himself disliked the term: it can lead to a glib efficiency in interpretation, one the composer markedly avoids in his 1964 recording of The Rake’s Progress, a work from the conclusion of his own so-called “neo-classical” period.
I wonder how closely conductor Sian Edwards has studied that recording? Her reading of the score on the first evening of David McVicar’s new production of The Rake for Scottish Opera was certainly one marked by warm lyricism and generosity of spirit, with tempos often a touch slower than expected.
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 15th March 2012, Nicola Lischi
“Two women making use of the bed to get to the throne and a man making use of the throne to get to the bed”: this is Graham Vick’s conception of Anna Bolena in his own words. In the same interview, the British stage director, creator of this production of Gaetano Donizetti’s masterpiece that originated in Verona in 2007 and was also acclaimed in Palermo and Trieste before landing at the Teatro Comunale of Florence, continues by stating that his Anna is neither the innocent Romantic heroine unjustly sentenced to death nor a stylized queen cloaked in a tragic and dignified pride, but rather a woman of flesh and blood that has sold her soul to become a queen, and that in the course of the opera must come to terms with her own conscience. The wintry imagery that often returns in his mise-en-scène is a reflection of the desolation of Anna’s heart and soul.
The Royal Opera, 12th March 2012, Miranda Jackson
Oh dear. I had such high hopes for this opera. New commissions such as this (a co-commission between the Bregenz Festival and the Royal Opera House) are what is needed to breathe new life into an art form which would otherwise become nothing more than a form of archaeology. I’d much rather listen to a new opera by Birtwistle, Sciarrino, Neuwirth, Rihm, Dusapin – any of the towering figures working in opera today than attend my 200th Traviata. But Judith Weir, who has given us A Night at the Chinese Opera(1987) and Blond Eckbert (1994) has not on this occasion delivered a challenging or thought-provoking piece of music theatre; I lament this missed opportunity.
English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, 9th March 2012, Mark Pullinger
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is an opera well suited to the smaller stage, with much of the action taking place within the restricted social setting of the Larin household in the country. Only the St Petersburg palace of Act III represents a challenge to a company with limited space or budget, but opulent period costumes and a clever set can overcome this effectively, as witnessed in this revival of James Conway’s intelligent production for English Touring Opera, launching its spring tour at the Hackney Empire. Five years ago, the plaudits were mainly directed towards Amanda Echalaz, who sang Tatyana in English National Opera’s new production last November. This time round, it’s the production itself and the performance of the title role which most impressed.
English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, 8th March 2012, Steve Silverman
English Touring Opera’s new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which opened at the Hackney Empire on Thursday night, is, at first glance, a highly conventional affair. Set firmly in Beaumarchais’ late 1700s, with contemporary sets and costumes, and eschewing any extraneous business, it is a straightforward narrative of young love’s triumph over elderly Machiavellian scheming. If you think that sounds a little worthy and just a bit dull then think again, for this is a show that grabs the audience’s attention and holds onto it from start to finish, so accomplished is it in its wit and invention.
Wigmore Hall, 7th March 2012, Miranda Jackson
I was privileged to hear my first performance of Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula at the Wigmore Hall on 7th March in the very capable hands of the Retrospect Ensemble, directed from the harpsichord by Matthew Halls. I am gradually becoming a discerning audience member for opera seria and have seen barn-storming operas by Vinci and Hasse and some of Handel’s greatest hits. You begin to get the hang of the genre after a while: boy meets girl/meets sorceress. Boy 1 fancies girl something awful. Sorceress fancies boy 1 something terrible. Boy 2 fancies girl almost as much. Sorceress is in cahoots with boy 2 to thwart the romance between boy 1 and girl. Ding dong the witch is dead, so “I’ve prepared some rustic dances for you.”
Guildhall School, Barbican, 3rd March 2012, Mark Pullinger
After an autumnal dip in the Thames with Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama returned to the Bard with Britten’s magical setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, transferring from Silk Street to the larger stage and auditorium of the neighbouring Barbican Theatre. Aspects of Martin Lloyd-Evans’ staging invite comparisons with recent London productions; the dilapidated dormitory of the opening scene initially made me wonder if we were in for another school outing after Christopher Alden’s controversial one for ENO of last season, while the profusion of beds, including suspending one for Tytania’s bower at the start of Act III, reminded me of the previous Coliseum staging from Robert Carsen. Lloyd-Evans sets the action somewhere in the 1940s in what turns out to be a hospital dorm, for reasons which fail to become apparent as the evening draws on.
Royal Albert Hall, 3rd March 2012, Mark Pullinger
An ‘arena opera’ virgin, I blithely made a prediction on my leisurely amble to the Royal Albert Hall for the latest Raymond Gubbay ‘spectacular’ featuring Verdi’s Aida: it would feature a cast of thousands and would focus on the great choral scenes in blockbusting fashion. Wrong on both counts. For all the grandeur of the Triumphal Scene on which much of the opera’s reputation rests in the eyes of the wider public, Aida is – for much of its duration – almost chamber opera; scenes between one or two characters in which the real drama plays out. Playing in the round of the Royal Albert Hall’s Arena, the limited size of the stage actually brought far more of the audience much closer to the action than is usual in an opera house. While the grand public scenes were a tad disappointing, the intimacy of the Nile Scene was a real highlight.
Welsh National Opera, 1st March 2012, Bethan Dudley Fryar
This Marriage of Figaro was first performed in Cardiff in February 2009 and this revival maintains the production’s Spanish lilt of the 1930’s. A sense of sharply delineated dance weaves into the orchestral and vocal lines, creating wonderful shapes on set and quirky characterisations. The beautiful set design by Paco Azorin is minimalist yet surprisingly striking in its use of mirrors, glass and shadows –all of which create the “smoke and mirror” sensation of the opera. The final act’s need for subterfuge uses the rather sinister, ever changing movement of panelled shadowy glass to create the perfect scene for misunderstandings, false recognitions and hide-and-seek amongst the pine trees. If only there were a few less pointed actions in spot-lit downstage manoeuvres – this did become a little wearing and somewhat predictable.
Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 29th February 2012, Nicola Lischi
The Teatro Verdi of Pisa has concluded its 2011/2012 season with a rare and intriguing diptych, Mozart and Salieri by Nikolaj Rimsky-Korsakov and Zanetto by Pietro Mascagni. These two works do not have much in common, other than being coeval, the Italian opera having had its premiere in 1896 and the Russian one two years later (though it had already been written in 1897). They both feature two characters: two male voices for the Russian opera (Mozart, a tenor) and Salieri (indicated as a baritone in the score, but normally sung by basses or bass-baritones) and two female voices in the Mascagni work: Silvia (soprano) and Zanetto, a mezzo-soprano en travestì.
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 23rd & 28th February 2012, Eli Jacobson
Sonja Frisell’s 1988 production of Aida has done great service at the Metropolitan Opera for over twenty seasons. Gianni Quaranta’s sets, inspired by Egypt as seen through the aesthetics of Hollywood and Cinecittà, summon a grandeur that the voices have not been able to consistently match. According to second hand reports, the current revival opened on February 9th in a very unpromising manner. The soprano and tenor evidently struggled unsuccessfully with the demands of their roles. The rest of the cast was either vocally mediocre or stylistically clumsy. Aida is an opera where the singing comes first – applied theatrics or attitude cannot compensate for subpar vocalism.
The Royal Opera, 27th February 2012, Mark Pullinger
Rusalka is simply too good an opera to have waited until 2012 for its first staging by the Royal Opera. Dvorak’s fairy tale about the water nymph who falls in love with a prince, with tragic consequences for them both, contains gorgeous music which pits the pastoral idyll of Rusalka’s lakeside world – all Bohemia’s woods and fields – against the formal world of the prince’s court. Naturally, many directors will wish to conduct a psychological exploration into the dark side of the plot and Kasper Holten’s introduction in the programme talks of ‘demonic aspects of our existence’, nightmares and the subconscious. This production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revived here by Samantha Seymour, was first seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. Ultimately, if it was convincing psycho-drama that was required, then the Royal Opera spectacularly failed to pick the right production, for 2008 also saw the premiere of Martin Kušej’s Munich staging which is dramatically superior on every count, though I dare say the booing from the first night audience would have been even more vociferous.
Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, 24th February 2012, Nicola Lischi
When Giovanni Pacor, general manager of the Teatro Carlo Felice, walks on stage moments before the beginning of the opera, the audience’s buzzing abruptly ceases. During his long and tortuous announcement, the tension is palpable in the auditorium filled to capacity. Mr. Pacor starts by reminding us about the crazy weather in Genoa (“ just days ago it was -7 and now it’s +17) informs us thatAndrea Bocelli, the megastar scheduled to sing the lead role in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, called at 6.30 p.m. that evening to inform the management that he was one of the many victims of the bizarre weather and unable to sing. Thus, Mr. Pacor immediately called José Bros, the tenor scheduled to appear in some of the later performances (and presumably to act as a cover), only to realize that Mr. Bros was even sicker than Bocelli. And so back to Bocelli, who, understanding the situation, agreed to sing even battling the flu to rescue the performance. “Only an artist with a great heart like Andrea could accept”, these were Mr. Pacor’s words. Instant collective sigh of relief and deafening applause.
English National Opera, 25th February 2012, Miranda Jackson
This is not an opera about politics; it is rather an extraordinary meditation on human conflict, the symbolism of sacrifice and raises questions of collective responsibility on the part of those of us who stand paralysed when faced with such atrocities as those currently being perpetrated in Syria.
The eastern Mediterranean is no longer on the other side of the world. This hijacking which took place in 1985 had little impact on those sleeping securely in our beds in London and New York. All that was to change after 9/11 and in 7/7 when Muslim activists brought the fight into our midst.John Adams’ opera asks us to address pre-9/11 complacency as represented by the Italian captain and crew who watched like rabbits blinded in headlights as this drama of life and death was played out before them.
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 25th February 2012, Mark Pullinger
This was a very old-fashioned night at the opera – and you’re welcome to take that in whatever way you will. Here was Verdi’s gloriously melodic Ernani (the one with the bandits and a plot so riddled with holes that it makes Il trovatore seem positively sane) in a creaky staging out of the ark, with no discernible signs of direction at all. Performances were strictly of the ‘park and bark’ variety, applause for the sets, curtain calls taken at the end of acts and a chorus so wooden it’s surprising it wasn’t infested with woodworm. Yet I enjoyed the whole experience immensely! In these days of Regietheater where directors reign supreme (often riding roughshod over the composers’ intentions), it was rather refreshing to be presented with something which old Joe Green would have recognised as his fifth opera.
Barbican, 22nd February 2012, Dominic Wells
Of the seven great Mozart operas, La clemenza di Tito was, until recently, the only one for which I had restrained admiration. As an opera seria, dramatically I thought it fell short of the Da Ponte trio, with Tito famously undergoing absolutely no character development, and even musically I wasn’t fully convinced that this was Mozart firing on all four cylinders. But my judgement of the music may have been affected by seeing the opera and being unimpressed with its relatively static action. When I purchased John Eliot Gardiner’s superb period-instrument set (Archiv) several years ago the mist finally cleared and I was able to recognise this for the masterpiece that it is. The problem is that Gardiner’s live recording sets the bar so ridiculously high that few can meet its standard. Even as a life-long Bartoli fan, I cannot recommend Hogwood’s recording (L’Oiseau-Lyre), since although the mezzo’s Sesto is outstanding, the rest of the cast is woefully under par, and in this work in particular, one singer cannot carry the others.
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 21st February 2012, Nicola Lischi
Instead of dusting off the thought-provoking Jonathan Miller’s “Rome, Open City” version that created a scandal in the mid ‘80s or Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s abstract and disturbing vision from 2005, the Teatro Comunale has decided to play safe and propose once again Tosca in the decidedly traditional production by Mario Pontiggia, inaugurated in 2008 and already revived two years later.
Perth International Arts Festival, 19th February 2012, Sandra Bowdler
Where’s the rest of it? I couldn’t help wondering. Some thirty years ago, Peter Brook brought his stripped down Carmento Perth (with an amazing Hélène Delevault), and it was indeed something of a revelation. Here was all the depth and dirt and darkness of the original Merimée story stripped of its finery, and Carmenproductions have hardly been the same since. But take away the magic from the Magic Flute, and what have you got? A very silly and indeed misogynistic tale with some nice tunes. You’d think Brook could have stripped out the latter quality in the process, but no, “Ein Mann muß eure Herzen leiten” blah blah blah. With all the cutting going on – no three ladies, no three boys, no charming or quirky animals, the whole thing brought home in 90 minutes - why do we need this?
Welsh National Opera, 18th February 2012, Terry Blain
The star turn of this Traviata was a woman, but not one of the singers. Her name was Julia Jones, an English conductor of wide experience internationally, but as yet relatively under-exposed in the United Kingdom. She should be known better: in a score often treated as a beat-through by professional orchestras, she elicited from the players of the Welsh National Opera an account of the music so full of insight and emotional resonance that it often eclipsed what was happening onstage above them.
Welsh National Opera, 17th February 2012, Terry Blain
“One of the liveliest and most original things I have done”. That was Berlioz’s own opinion of his final opera, but Béatrice et Bénédict has not fared particularly well since its premiere in 1862 at Baden-Baden. This Welsh National Opera production (sung in English) was first unveiled in 1994, and hasn’t been seen since 2001: this was its first appearance at the Wales Millennium Centre.
It’s easy to see why Béatrice is staged infrequently. One problem is that there simply isn’t a huge amount going on in the opera: the deftness and nuance of the verbal wordplay in Much Ado About Nothing (from which Berlioz drew his libretto) are obfuscated by the musical context, and the pruning of Shakespeare’s original gives the narrative a clunking and dramatically unbalanced feel in places. The sizeable clumps of unaccompanied dialogue don’t help: they’re clumsily weighted against the musical numbers in decidedly skew-whiff fashion.
The Royal Opera, 16th February 2012, Mark Pullinger
Friends and critics report that the singing in this revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of Don Giovanni is much superior to that of Cast A which opened last month, while others suggest it’s more a case of swings and roundabouts. On paper, this always looked a stronger cast, but not having seen the earlier one, I cannot really comment. This time around, although the conductor remains the same, there is a different revival director, Bárbara Lluch, who seems to have worked hard at reviving a corpse of a production. Indeed, it almost seems to have been shocked back into life, with a hyperactive level of movement, bordering on slapstick farce. This promoted the comic elements of the opera, especially the excellent (and experienced) partnership between the Don and Leporello, but missed the darkness in the work by some distance, until the supper scene, which remains the coup-de-théâtre of Zambello’s production, with flames streaming towards the proscenium arch, the heat from them easily reaching the front of the balcony.
The Opera Theatre Company, 12th February 2012, Terry Blain
Dublin-based Opera Theatre Company is so accustomed to turbulence and uncertainty (it nearly closed down in 2010 as a result of funding issues) that a heavily chest-infected Queen of the Night and a chronically food-poisoned Tamino probably seemed the merest of little local difficulties. They soldiered on, of course –Adrian Dwyer walking his part and doing the spoken dialogue, and Allison Bell hurling herself heroically into the Queen’s two arias, although she apparently couldn’t hear a note that she was singing.
The Royal Opera, 11th February 2012, Steve Silverman
If the curate ever wonders what has become of his much travelled egg, he could have located it last Saturday evening at the Royal Opera House, where it was masquerading as a performance that had much to commend it but was ultimately undone by some unbalanced casting.
David McVicar's 2006 staging (placing the action amid the revolutionary turmoil of 1830s Europe) remains a thing of beauty. With Tanya McCallin's gorgeous designs and Paule Constable's at times magical lighting (the transition from sunset to Rembrandtesque candle light at the end of Act III is a genuine coup de théâtre) he has created a production that is well on the way to attaining iconic status.
West Australian Opera, 11th February 2012, Sandra Bowdler
Given the usual fare provided by West Australian Opera – almost entirely limited to the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the occasional nod to bel canto – the fact that Elektra sold out over a three night run must surely convey a message to someone there. True, it was embedded in the Perth International Arts Festival which attracts a wider audience, and it featured a soprano of international renown in the title role, but it is hard to escape the feeling that local opera goers might just be thirsting for what has become the unusual, albeit most metropolitan centres feature Strauss operas as repertory regulars. And, make no mistake, this is a superlative production in every respect, but it was sold out before anyone saw it.
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 11th February 2012, Dominic Wells
This was a first for me. We’ve all seen operas on DVD of course, and I’ve attended a handful of cinematic viewings of operas ‘on the big screen’, but until last night I had never been to see a live relay of an opera in a cinema. This was coming from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, a venue I’ve only ever been to once (Hänsel und Gretel, January 2008), and with which I had been somewhat disappointed in terms of its acoustics. Unfortunately, the sound of Waterloo’s IMAX cinema was not entirely satisfactory for this HD presentation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, sometimes sounding rather compressed, and at other times (according to where the singers turned to face out to the audience) rather echo-ey. In addition, the fact that this was a live feed rather than a recording was made apparent by a fairly major technical glitch. In the final scene of Act I (as Siegfried, in the guise of Gunther by means of the Tarnhelm, forces the ring from Brünnhilde), the singing was replaced by an irksome, continuous, Dalek-type sound/alarm while the visuals continued unaffected for about three minutes.
English National Opera, 10th February 2012, Mark Pullinger
A nightmarish world of hallucinations for an author who created dark, twisted works himself (The Nutcracker is far from a festive confection in its original tale) was highly appropriate in English National Opera’s first new production of the year, The Tales of Hoffmann. In a trademark Richard Jones creation, first seen at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich last autumn, Hoffmann seeks solace in alcohol in order to forget the woeful state of his doomed love-life (just the thing with Valentine’s Day round the corner!), which we see unravel in flashback in all its horror, his every footstep dogged by villainy.
Opera Up Close, King's Head, 8th February 2012, John E de Wald
I have long been of the mindset that La fanciulla del West ranks amongst Puccini’s greatest accomplishments. Though perhaps never being a recurring popular favourite in quite the same vein asBohème or Butterfly, it offers some of the composer’s most sophisticated orchestration and a wealth of rich melody. Certainly there is an opulence to the score, a colouring and evocativeness that cannot but recall wisps of Debussy at some moments, Wagner at others. Despite the somewhat unusual nature of the plot - a tale of bandits, poker, and love played out against the backdrop of the American wild west, surely a new frontier in the Italian operatic landscape - and the occasional redolence of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, effected most strongly by the melody of ‘Quello che tacete’, famously reworked and interpolated into Phantom, the work owns a sincerity of emotion that is extremely affecting when done well.
Scottish Opera, 4th February 2012, Kelvin Holdsworth
Just a dozen or so years before Engelbert Humperdinck wrote his most famous opera, the world was tasting saccharine for the first time. The great danger with Hansel and Gretel is that it will taste much the same. Bill Bankes-Jones’s production of Hansel and Gretel for Scottish Opera managed to find enough that is dark and sinister to ensure that we were not overwhelmed by sweetness but still managed to produce an evening where the sheer beauty of the music leads the production from beginning to end.
Wilton's Music Hall, 2nd February 2012, Miranda Jackson
Nicola LeFanu is an experienced and accomplished operatic composer andDream Hunter is in fact her seventh opera. The other guarantee of quality for a good night out at Wilton’s Music Hall (near the Tower of London) is that this opera, already performed on tour in Wales, was commissioned by the eminent conductor,Odaline de la Martinez with funds from the Vaughan Williams Trust. De la Martinez founded Lontano in 1976 and the ensemble delivers a consistently high quality of performance every time I hear it. Lontano programmes are rarely mainstream and predictable. In this case the 50 minute opera by LeFanu was preceded by works by two other female composers, maintaining De la Martinez’s advocacy of compositions by women who tend otherwise to be under-represented in the concert hall.
Metropolitan Opera, 30th January 2012, John E de Wald
On my first attempt to review The Met’s Live in HD performance of Philip Glass’sSatyagraha at the IMAX (19th November), crescendoing technical glitches, frustrating at first but then gradually becoming incapacitating, led to the cancellation of the transmission by the end of the second act. Happily, the IMAX made the decision to host a reprised screening of the opera this week; this one proved rather more felicitous than the first, all three acts making it intact for viewing.
Opera North, 28th January 2011
Bellini’s masterpiece Norma, arguably the zenith of bel canto opera, is not performed anywhere near as often as it ought to be, primarily because we lack singers of sufficient calibre to take on its fearsome title role, one associated with the monstres sacrés of the past, such as Ponselle, Callas, Sutherland and Caballé. Today it would appear that the best we can hope for is the lacerated larynx of a Guleghina or the unspeakable mess that is an aged Gruberova. Never has the future of bel canto seemed so starved of talent and shorn of possibilities. It has therefore come as the greatest of surprises to find that this elusive talent is alive and kicking and singing the heck out of the role in Leeds of all places! Musically, the Opera North performance of Norma was an unexpected triumph. The production however, was unremittingly awful – a trite, shallow interpretation of a magnificent text, rendered all but empty of meaning by the sort of direction which should see Christopher Alden deserving his very own immolation – a real bonfire of the vanities.
English National Opera, 28th January 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When this staging – which originated at Scottish Opera - was first seen at the Coliseum in 2008, nothing much about it struck me as particularly distinguished or worthwhile. Nor was I much taken with it musically, either, with a pallid, unmoving Marschallin at its heart, and a conductor all-too obviously still learning his craft both in terms of tempo and timing, leading an orchestra not notably on top of its assignment. Four years on, I still think the staging is hideous to have to look at, managing to be cheaply drab, colourless, spatially and socially undifferentiated, and yawningly empty for much of its length: but musically things have perked up almost beyond recognition, for all that two of the four principals are the same as before, as indeed is the conductor, Edward Gardner.
The Royal Opera, 27th January 2012, Dominic Wells
This was one of those Cosìs that you’re either going to love or hate, though I can’t imagine there would be many in the latter category. Set in contemporary times, the production came complete with mobile phones, Starbucks coffee and doughnuts, with costumes to match: Charles Castronovo (Ferrando) and Nikolay Borchev (Guglielmo) changed from grey suits in the opening scene into modern-day army uniform (with garishly blue berets), and then into tattooed, chest-baring rockers, wearing sunglasses and clothes including a skull-and-crossbones vest, jeans lined with sequins and head bands. The behaviour of the characters was not exactly eighteenth century either: when the two men were called off to Don Alfonso’s mock-war, Dorabella (dressed in a casual top and tight-fitting jeans) ran up and leapt into Ferrando’s arms, wrapping her legs round him. Liking the look of this, Guglielmo invited Fiordiligi (similarly dressed) to do the same, holding out his hands in anticipation with a huge, expectant smile on his face, which gradually faded (with excellent comic timing) as he realised this wasn’t going to happen, and his open-armed invitation gradually transformed into a somewhat embarrassed, single-handed gesture that he’ll call her when they’re away.
Royal Festival Hall, 26th January 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When Sadler’s Wells Opera was still performing in Rosebery Avenue – before decamping to the Coliseum in the later 1960s and shortly thereafter changing its name to ENO – I seem to recall a number of school trips I went on as a boy to hear works by the likes of Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ildebrando Pizzetti and (the Swiss) Heinrich Sutermeister. Nowadays, I imagine that most groups of early teenage boys are instead taken en masse to visit reformatories and young offenders’ institutes, with a view to familiarising them with what for many will soon enough become their adult milieu. (I jest. Just.)
The Royal Opera, 21st January 2012, Carla Finesilver
First impressions are important. As the first few seconds – or so we are informed – of a job interview are vital, despite the main body of questioning occurring later, vital also are the first few minutes of an opera’s overture in setting the tone for the drama to come. Unfortunately the people sitting behind me considered their conversation more important than Mozart’s quietly brilliant shifting of harmonies and timbres around traditionally melancholic D minor, already prefiguring themes of death and social destabilisation. There being no time to point out what they were missing, a sharp instruction to desist had to suffice. I hope they then turned their attention to the music and were able to gain some enjoyment from the superb and perfectly controlled dynamic contrasts, almost dizzying in the passage of climbing scales, and the machine-level precision of ensemble playing in terms of timing, intonation and balancing of chords. Clarity and precision are an absolute must for Mozart, and throughout the performance the orchestra’s level was consistently very high indeed; however, conductor Constantinos Carydis carried machinelike precision to the extent of being somewhat robotic in his tempi, with little sense of long-line continuity, and unwilling to accommodate rubato from the singers. Still, perhaps this was a first-night effect and subsequent performances will have greater flow and flexibility.
Scottish Opera, 20th January 2012, Kelvin Holdsworth
Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery is seldom staged in this country. This production by Scottish Opera in collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland worked reasonably well as a showcase for the singing talents of those on stage. However, no persuasive case was made for the piece itself and the staging was sloppy and careless from the outset.
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 18th January 2012, Nicola Lischi
Listening to Il viaggio a Reims, how can one help wondering: but whatever kind of king could there have been, a king who had a thing like this specially composed for his coronation? To what kind of throne in what kind of musical-comedy kingdom could have acceded a king who, for his own glorification, chose to have performed such a circus in sound, such a musical joke, such a theatrical absurdity? Were there no longer any sovereigns like Leopold II of Bohemia, who for his own coronation festivities succeeded in engaging Mozart, and persuaded him to write in the style of decades ago, going back so far as to revive Metastasio? That was a coronation opera if ever there was one.
Opera North, 14th January 2012, Faye Courtney
It’s been more than ten years since Opera North last staged a Handel opera, so this intelligent and attractive new production of Giulio Cesare directed by Tim Albery was long overdue but ultimately proved worth the wait. Boasting a strong cast led by Sarah Tynan’s dazzling Cleopatra there was certainly a great deal to please Handel devotees and general opera-goers alike, although baroque purists will understandably be disappointed that nearly a whole hour of music has been cut from one of Handel’s greatest and most glorious scores.
The Royal Opera, 2nd January 2012, Sebastian Petit
Only the second day of the New Year and we were back for the third cast of the Royal Opera’s umpteenth revival of Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. If ever a production earned its money back then it is this reliable showcase. And it is no bad thing for a large house to have this sort of version of the regular warhorses which can happily accommodate portrayals as varied as Gheorghiu, Fleming and Netrebko (although not the latter later this month apparently!). This particular revival was wildly uneven in quality, ranging from an uninvolved and musically trepidatious first act, through an up and down middle act to a last act which stood comparison with the finest of my experience and eclipsed most of them.
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