Scottish Opera, 22nd March 2014, Kelvin Holdsworth
Scottish Opera’s revival of Dominic Hill’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth is something of a mixed bag that is saved by several confident performances, most notably that of Elisabeth Meister as Lady Macbeth. Before we think about the singing though, we must discuss the curtain. By understanding the curtain, we can understand the whole of this production!
The Royal Opera, 14th March 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Every operatic history book will tell you that the partnership of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal was one of, if indeed not the, greatest collaborations, in which a noted dramatist and front-ranking composer came together to produce works still forming a major pillar of the repertory. And anyone with the faintest familiarity with the subject will tell you what a preternaturally gifted man of the theatre Strauss was, and how influential Hofmannsthal would be in shaping dramatic trends in the earlier years of the C20th. Supreme theatrical craftsmen, then, the both of them, who knew what they were about, what they were doing and what they wanted. And what did they have to say on the subject of staging their operas? Strauss said it best, in the presence of a wholly-in-agreement Hofmannsthal: “Beware of producers with ideas”.
Barbican Hall, 6th March 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
It’s one of the odder facts of classical music performance in London that the Barbican Hall should have become, over the past fifteen years or so, the effective home of the Baroque blockbuster, playing host to all the major period instrument bands active in the repertory, and dishing up a regular diet of (mainly C18th) operas given in concert presentation. It’s also noticeable that what one might call the drop-out rate in announced casts for these performances is astonishingly high, far exceeding the much more remarked games of musical chairs that go on vocally at the Royal Opera House. Tonight was no exception, with two of the three scheduled soprano soloists going AWOL: and we even had a complete change of chorus as well, just to keep us on our toes. Still, the fundamentals remained, in the shape of Christophe Rousset and his band Les Talens Lyriques, let loose on Rameau’s second opera, originally written in 1735 for the Académie Royale de Musique.
Royal Opera, 4th March 2013, Llyr Carvana
Now on its third revival, Laurent Pelly’s brilliantly sunny and deservedly popular production of Donizetti’s sentimental opéra comique stands at a bit of a crossroads. Previous productions have retained the many in-jokes about ‘les obligations Olympique’ and so on but post London 2012 should these be retained or updated in the manner of the names on Koko’s little list, so amusingly done at the Coliseum? Based on the current run, the answer appears to be an odd and unsatisfactory mix of the two.
Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 7th March 2014, Nicola Lischi
Ever since its premiere at La Scala in 1896, Andrea Chénier has owed its popularity to tenors attracted by a title role that maximizes rapt ardour and heroic posturing. Yet Chénier, for all its kitsch spectacle of the French revolution, happens to be among the most ambitious and expansive of so-called Verismo operas. Its melodramatic triangle – between the anti-poet Chénier, the aristocratic Maddalena di Coigny, and the servant-turned-revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard, who attemps to use his power to force himself on Maddalena – anticipatesTosca, written four years later (by the same librettist, Illica).
Britten Theatre, RCM, 3rd March 2014, Miranda Jackson
Last night the London Handel Festivalopened with a wonderful evening featuring young soloists garnered from the Royal College’s International Opera School. Fast on the heels of the extraordinary and rather controversial Rodelinda at English National Opera, we were treated toArianna in Creta, presented in a much more conventional way. I imagine this was not just to pacify the Handel purists who so disliked last year’s rather imaginativeImeneo, set in a Mediterranean spa with gratuitous massage, but also to offer young singers making their first foray intoopera seria the best opportunity to deliver controlled and musical coloratura without having to multitask on a treadmill or sporting a dead skunk.
Opera Australia,12th February 2014, Sandra Bowdler
This first-ever Australian production of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia (here billed as The Turk in Italy) is an absolute delight. Featuring Australia’s bel canto prima donna assoluta Emma Matthews in top form, it also boasts a sparkling 1950s-themed production under the direction of Simon Phillips (former Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company), who also provided the genuinely funny idiomatic Australian-English surtitles.
English National Opera, 28th February 2014, Miranda Jackson
English National Opera has certainly earned the right to name itself “The House of Handel” over the years. While its posher rival in Bow Street barely seems tobe aware of the composer’s existence, ENO continues to delight audiences with a steady stream of imaginative, high quality Handelian productions (with the exception of their uncharacteristically appalling Julius Caesar), impressively cast with some of the best Baroque talent that Britain has to offer. I particularly like the fact that this innovative new production of Rodelinda will be running during the first week of the 2014 London Handel Festival, meaning that Handel fans can spend evenings in March with not one but three of Handel’s redoubtable heroines.
Teatro Carlo Felice, 23rd February 2014, Nicola Lischi
When the Teatro Carlo Felice announced its season early in the autumn, this production of Puccini’s evergreen masterpiece caught my attention for a few reasons: Daniela Dessì’s performing double duty as the protagonist and stage director, the presence of Maestro Valerio Galli, whom I consider one of the worthiest Italian conductors active today, and above all the choice of presenting the second version of the opera, Puccini’s first revision, the so-called Brescia 1904 edition. Without going into minute detail, a few words are necessary to give an idea of the differences among the four main revisions, and the place that this Brescia version occupies in Puccini’s manifest intention to modify the opera towards a major goal: that of progressively sharpening the focus on Butterfly, thus eliminating as much as possible the peripheral vignettes regarding her relatives.
English Touring Opera, 20th February 2014, Sebastian Petit
What on earth were Britten and W.H Auden thinking of when they created Paul Bunyan? Firstly, to have the naivety to believe that two callow,sheltered Englishmen could take on the might of the Broadway of Gershwin, Weill, Kern and Hammerstein and then to perversely choose a subject matter which allowed for no strong narrative thrust. Like most folk legends, the story of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan is a collection of disparate events added to and expanded over the years. Amusing when told round the campfire, but hardly the stuff of a cogent music theatre libretto. Auden’s contribution signally fails to bind the events into a whole and is often clotted with lines which land on the ear with peculiar ungratefulness. It’s hard to believe that this is the same author who later penned one of the very finest English language libretti for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
No deers were harmed in the making of this opera!
English Touring Opera (Linbury), 22nd February 2014, Miranda Jackson
I realised with with some consternation that the last time I saw a staged production of Tippett’s King Priam was more than thirty years ago. The disadvantages of getting old usually outweigh the benefits, but I realise in this case I have the advantage over those critics seeing the opera for the first time in its full dramatic glory. As we listen to opposing views about the significance of The Great War in its centenary year, we should remember that King Priam was premiered in Coventry, the night before the War Requiem in a festival to celebrate the consecration of Basil Spence’s modernist cathedral with its Chapel of Unity, a shrine to peace. Tippett, perhaps even more than Britten, was “fiercely pacifist.” His depiction of the Trojan war focuses on the collateral damage inflicted on the families of the young bucks who initiate war.
Rattling the roofers in Serban's classic staging
The Royal Opera, 17th February 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Now, I’m sure you can understand that, diffident and deferential in the proffering of my humble views as I always am, I am the last person to enter into any form of critical dissent from the consensus: dear me, no. As if. And this is doubly so when it comes to the opinions of Antony Lias, OpBrit’sfons et origo - or, “the most beloved leader” as his frequent emails keep telling us to refer to him – who reviewed the performance of this opera when it opened the current ROH season back in September in a manner that could be reasonably described as withering, at least as far as the staging was concerned. So it is with something approaching trepidation that I confess that I really like Andrei Serban’s staging, and always have, ever since I first saw it when it was brand new exactly thirty years ago (aged 9: a self-evident prodigy).
Teatro Goldoni di Livorno, 13th February 2014, Nicola Lischi
When death came to Jacques Offenbach in October of 1880, he was at work on the fourth act of the vocal score for a five-act opera that would have been his valedictory to the lyric stage. How he would have finished the opera we shall never know, for it was his habit to assess public reaction to his premieres, to rearrange and rewrite numbers if necessary before setting his seal on a work. The introduction of Les contes d’Hoffmann at the Opéra-Comique on the 10th of February 1881 was far from what Offenbach had originally intended. He had planned a grand opera without spoken dialogues; the character of Hoffmann was to be a baritone. But when his producer Vizentini went bankrupt, Carvalho accepted the work for the Opéra-Comique and its contracted singers.
Sumptuous, but befuddling production
English National Opera, 13th February 2014, Mark Pullinger
The final revival in 2009 of Jonathan Miller’s Little Italy mafioso production of Rigoletto, a classic at English National Opera since it opened in 1982, was my first Opera Britannia review. By a neat dint of symmetry, this production by Christopher Alden at the same address proves to be my final assignment. Alden originally staged the opera for the Chicago Lyric in 2000, where it met with howls of derision from the Chicago press. After being quietly dumped, ENO and the Canadian Opera Company decided to revive its fortunes, its 2011 Canadian premiere invoking a similar response from Toronto’s conservative audience. Perhaps it will fare better on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, those who were outraged by the director’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (myself included) or scathing about his Freudian treatment of Die Fledermaus, will find little to provoke a similarly extreme response here, just a sense of mild befuddlement.
Provocative production, dazzlingly stylish execution
Royal Opera in HD, 12th February 2014, Mark Pullinger
Jean-Paul Sartre closes No Exit with the line, ‘Hell is other people’ (‘L'enfer, c'est les autres’), yet in Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni, Hell is quite the opposite – a lonely vacuum where the Don’s history of his 2065 conquests is wiped from the slate, reducing him to a lonely, cowering shell; no leaping flames and brimstone here. Mozart’s dramma giocoso, composed for Prague in 1787 and revised for the Vienna premiere a year later, is often labelled ‘a director’s graveyard’ but Holten bravely turns the piece on its head with some surprising – and controversial – twists. I attended the second night at the Royal Opera House and was fascinated enough to want to watch it again, this time via the cinema screen.
Sextet of young singers bring off successful revival
Teatro del Giglio di Lucca, 9th February 2014, Nicola Lischi
The most famous of Domenico Cimarosa’s sixty-five operas, Il matrimonio segreto had a triumphant premiere in Vienna in 1972, just two months after Mozart’s death. It is well-known that the Emperor Leopold II enjoyed the work so much that he ordered a lavish supper for the performers, after which the entire opera was repeated. This must have been a substantial feat, considering that the premiere lasted three hours because of public acclamation and repetition of arias and ensembles.
Nézet-Séguin's conducting lights up this limply directed revival
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 8th February 2014, Mark Pullinger
I’ve an inkling this production of Dvorak’sRusalka at the Metropolitan Opera is the sort we’re supposed to shake our heads and sneer at. Sumptuously costumed and featuring handsome, realistic sets, Otto Schenk’s staging is practically everything asked for in the libretto, a production so traditional that even tenor Piotr Beczala, who has expressed his artistic displeasure at some operatic updatings, may just have found it too conservative. The only element of (mock) controversy in Schenk’s direction - and it perplexed Renée Fleming, returning to the title role – concerns why Rusalka sings her celebrated ‘Song to the Moon’ from the top of a tree when she’s a water nymph. It was obvious that the decision was a purely aesthetic one, beautifully rendered even in HD, as proved by the gorgeous production shot to the right.
A compelling, fast-paced staging
Opera North, Leeds, 7th February 2014, Geoffrey Mogridge
The conflict, blood and gore in Shakespeare's "Scottish play" has made it a favourite amongst generations of school students (mine included) - a sound enough reason perhaps for staging Verdi's opera with greater frequency than some of his other early works. Following previous successful productions of Macbeth in 1981 and 1987, Opera North turned to Tim Alberyin 2008 for his take on Verdi's early masterpiece and Albery has now returned to oversee this revival of his compelling, fast-paced staging.
English National Opera, 29th January 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When this staging was new in 2009, it was fairly generally rapturously received, and I certainly couldn’t manage to get a ticket for the trying for the whole of its sold-out run. I subsequently did review the follow-up Billy Budd, and was very puzzled as to how someone – David Alden - who had apparently delivered such an epoch-making Grimes could have so utterly failed with Britten’s Melville adaptation. And the puzzle has remained with me until tonight, the production’s first revival since it was new, when it very rapidly became clear to me that both stagings were, and are, of a regrettable piece, cut from the same cloth, and that this Grimes is as much of a miserable misfire, embarrassingly amateurish when not actively obnoxious, as the later effort.
Feline frolics at the Pensione Pasquale give little paws for thought
Scottish Opera, Glasgow, 24th January 2014, Kelvin Holdsworth
Obviously intended to be another populist crowd-pleaser, Scottish Opera’s new production of Don Pasquale is visually gorgeous but sabotaged from the pit by conducting from Francesco Corti that is bold, daring and utterly insensitive to the fact that anyone is singing.
Things began well. On entering the theatre, the curtain was dominated by a large projected image apparently advertising the production. The first few bars of music came at a cracking pace and then a pause slightly more pregnant than usual as the digital image was revealed to be the first page of a digital book.
Exquisite imported production let down by the principals
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 21st January 2014, Nicola Lischi
With Italy and the whole cultural world mourning the loss of one of the greatest conductors who ever lived, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino rightly began this evening – which was also the inauguration of the winter season - paying respect to Claudio Abbado inviting the audience to a minute of silence. Then came Nabucco, an opera that has in recent decades peremptorily occupied a central place in the standard repertoire and has been one of the most performed Verdi works – at least in Italian opera houses – during last year’s celebration of the composer’s two-hundredth birthday. Strangely enough, Nabucco has been a rare presence in Florence; although it was part of the very first Maggio Musicale in 1933, it was brought forth only four times since then, the last one being in 1977, in a justly celebrated production by Luca Ronconi conducted by Riccardo Muti.
Visually arresting new production of Puccini's 'Spaghetti Western'
Opera North, Leeds, 21st January 2014, Geoffrey Mogridge
It is difficult to understand why Puccini's ‘Spaghetti Western’ La fanciulla del West, composed for the Metropolitan Opera and premiered there on 10th December 1910, is so infrequently staged. The availability of suitable voices might be one reason; the opera's perceived low esteem amongst the opera-going cognoscenti is perhaps another. Opera North has now staged a visually arresting new production directed by Aletta Collins which replaces its previous David Pountney production (which was utterly superb and had a cast including Mary Jane Johnson, John Treleaven and Malcolm Donnelly). How sad that Pountney’s 1985/86 production was never revived and that we have had to wait almost thirty years to once again bathe in the glow cast by Puccini's heartwarming tale of redemptive love.
Impressive first revival of Pelly's refreshingly unpretentious Manon
Royal Opera, 14th January 2014, Gavin Dixon
Laurent Pelly’s spectacular but refreshingly unpretentious Manon makes a welcome return to Covent Garden, its first revival since the original 2010 run. Most of the cast returns, with the exception of the two leads, Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani replacing Netrebko and Grigolo. That changes the dynamic, makes it less of a star vehicle and more of an ensemble piece. But the cast here is strong, right down to the smallest roles, so it’s a smooth transition. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume gives a graceful and supple reading of the score, not perfect but fully in the spirit of the work. Massenet’s opera is done full justice here, presented for the grand opera that it is, and never contorted to the personal whims of any on the creative team.
Kunde triumphs in title role
Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, 29th December 2013, Nicola Lischi
It took almost half a century for Verdi’s Otello to return to the city where most of it was conceived and written, as it is well known that the composer loved to winter in the mild climate of the Ligurian capital. Forty-five years ago it starred two specialists of their respective roles such as Tito Gobbi and Pier Miranda Ferraro and a wild card like Elena Suliotis, already at the beginning of the decline of her flash-in-the-pan career. Now the Teatro Carlo Felice is able to re-introduce this masterpiece to the Genoese audience importing a production that received plenty of attention and generally positive reviews when it originated in Valencia last summer. Davide Livermore is one of a just a handful of Italian stage directors in high demand by international opera companies, which normally do not associate Italian producers with avant-garde or non-traditional stagings.
Lukewarm revival fails to raise the temperature
Royal Opera, 23rd December 2013, Sebastian Petit
This revival of Carmen was something of a curate’s egg evening for various reasons. Principal amongst these was the production by Francesca Zambello which remains a curious mix of felicitous detail, distracting sideshows and sometimes appalling vulgarity. I have not seen the production for a while but I don’t remember it being peppered with so many unlikely details before: of which, more later.
The other major fly in the ointment was the conductor, Daniel Oren whose continued re-employment in Bow Street is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the arts world.
Royal Opera, 18th December 2013, Miranda Jackson
The last time I cried at an opera performance, Domingo was still singing tenor. As the new production of Parsifal at the Royal Opera House directed by Stephen Langridge has received mixed reviews and I felt I had heard elements of the definitiveParsifal at this year’s BBC Promenade Concerts under the baton of Mark Elder with the formidable Gurnemanz of John Tomlinson, it was with some trepidation I attended the press screening of the cinema relay at the Mayfair Hotel last night.
Opera Rara rides to Offenbach's rescue once again
Royal Festival Hall, 15th December 2013, Llyr Carvana
Right, everyone - look down the back of the sofa for that spare wad of fifties, it’s time to start donating to Opera Rara. Yet again they’ve shown what a valuable organization they are by resurrecting neglected scores, then performing and recording them. This excellent performance of Fantasio under the baton of Mark Elder was their third foray into Offenbach’s repertoire, following their recordings of Robinson Crusoe and Vert-Vert. Yes, third, Christopher Columbus is a pastiche, so doesn’t really count. Their latest offering was Offenbach’s 1872 opéra comique, Fantasio. The first run of the piece lasted but 10 performances, apparently falling foul of the Parisian’s hostility towards the German-born composer in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. The autograph score was then lost in the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887. This has resulted in some excellent musicological detective work by Jean-Christophe Keck, editor of the critical edition used for this performance, using the vocal score and other manuscripts that are now held in various collections around the world.
Fat Knight reigns in the Big Apple
Metropolitan Opera, 14th December 2013, Miranda Jackson
In May 2012 British audiences at the Royal Opera House were treated to Canadian director Robert Carsen’s updating of Verdi’s Falstaff from the time of Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II – “still Elizabethan and still English.” My colleague Mark Pullinger wrote an excellent and comprehensive view of the production on this website. Now this Italian-British-American-Dutch co-production has reached The Met and coincides with James Levine’s much-publicised return to conducting there. I was impressed by Maestro Levine’s command of this score, of the dramatic pacing and of the quality of playing he elicits from the orchestra.
A fresh Falstaff, expertly conducted
Teatro del Giglio, Lucca, 13th December 2013, Nicola Lischi
This production of Falstaff originated at the Ravenna Festival just last month, where it was staged as the third instalment of Verdi’s Shakespearean Trilogy: the three operas, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff were performed on three consecutive evenings in the space of a weekend, with the same conductor and creative team. At the helm of the project stands the artistic director of the Ravenna Festival, Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, wife of the famed Maestro and herself a highly regarded stage producer. Since the trilogy, which was well received by both audiences and critics, was apparently conceived with unity of purpose and spirit, it is regrettable that only the final chapter travelled to the Teatro del Giglio of Lucca, co-producer of the production.
Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, 12th September 2013, Miranda Jackson
There is a real art to writing contemporary opera. In August the Royal Opera Houseand the Guildhall School of Music and Drama announced that its first “Composer-in-residence” Doctorate is to be awarded to Philip Venables, who will deliver a new opera for premiere in the Linbury Theatre in 2016. It just so happens he will be supervised by Julian Philips, whose opera How the Whale Became is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Linbury until January 4th 2013.
Livorno celebrates 150th birthday of Mascagni
Teatro Goldoni, Livorno, 7th December 2013, Nicola Lischi
Exactly on the 150th anniversary of his birth, Livorno, the town where he was born, commemorated one of its most illustrious citizens, Pietro Mascagni, with a tribute that included his evergreen,Cavalleria rusticana, as well as four excerpts from one of his most obscure works, Parisina, an opera that was celebrating a milestone of its own, as it was premiered in December 1913.
The evening began auspiciously with a short film showing the elderly Mascagni at the piano composing his swan song,Nerone, followed soon after by a loquacious presenter and a parade of dignitaries whose interventions definitely overstayed their welcome. Finally, after so much confabulation, the Parisina arias, or better ariosos, were performed by three young singers selected from the masterclass held by famed mezzo-soprano Bruna Baglioni, also present on stage to present the scholarships.
Limp, lacklustre conducting kills this Tosca
Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 29th November 2013, Nicola Lischi
The opening chords of the Scarpia motif, limp and lacking in compactness, followed by the heaviness of the Angelotti, or “fugitive” motif were instantaneous harbingers of the dismal outcome of this Tosca performance. There is no beating around the bush: the blame must be squarely placed upon the shoulders of Nahel Al Halabi, a conductor of Syrian background, who trudged through the score showing no pulse, no vigour, no energy, let alone punch and verve. His whole conducting moved as if slowly and laboriously making its way through molasses, almost an exercise in word spelling. And it was not just a problem of tempos and rhythm, because also the dynamic range was flattened and ironed out. He moved ponderously, one note at the time, and this all happened at the helm of the Puccini Festival Orchestra, whose members could surely play Tosca in their sleep.
A brave endeavour, with mixed fortunes
Welsh National Opera, Southampton, 27th-29th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
I came late to The Tudors, the televisual romp charting the marriages of Henry VIII, aired by the BBC. It spawned renewed interest in this period of history with its larger than life characters, on which Welsh National Opera obviously hoped to capitalise in its ambitious venture to stage three of Donizetti’s Tudor operas (Il castello di Kenilworth the omission) in a single touring season. Likewise, I came late to WNO’s Tudor trilogy, catching the final performances of the tour at The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton. Donizetti and his librettists played as fast and loose with English history as modern-day scriptwriters. Anyone anticipating a treatment as glamorous as the television bonkbuster would have been sorely disappointed though, its rich tapestry of characters and settings rendered almost entirely in funereal black in Madeleine Boyd’s all-purpose designs and costumes for all three operas. For such a colourful historical period, these stagings are perversely gloomy.
A Carmen beyond the routine
Teatro del Giglio, Lucca, 23rd November 2013, Nicola Lischi
Obviously a critically informed performance of an opera, let alone one such as Carmen, is only helpful if it does not remain a mere exercise in scholarship but is translated into a real living theatrical experience, which is what happened in Lucca. First of all, most of the merit must be credited to Carlo Goldstein, a young conductor who emerged only four years ago after winning the International Conducting Competition of Graz and has since then appeared in some of the most important opera companies and concert halls in Europe. Supported by the distinguished Orchestra della Toscana, he conducted with impulsiveness and colour, while still favouring relatively relaxed tempos, never forgetting that despite the tragic dénoument, Carmen is still an opéra-comique, and that it’s not its fault if early on it came to be viewed as the prototype of Verismo opera and thereby falsified. Goldstein conducted with a languorous but not languid grace, which for many critics defines the difference between Bizet’s opera and the tempestuous and exotic novella on which it is based.
WNO's über-traditional staging outclasses the Met
Welsh National Opera, Southampton, 26th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older. In the event, it proved a good deal better than its big-budget competitor from the Big Apple, both in terms of action as well as much of the actual singing.
A curate's egg of a Herring
Barbican Hall, 23rd November 2013, Miranda Jackson
The BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated Britten’s birthday weekend with a performance of the composer’s chamber opera Albert Herring, a dark satire on Little England. The libretto is based on a short story by Maupassant but written by Eric Crozier (the original director of Peter Grimes) and gives us a wonderful insight into rural life in England c. 1900. Small-town life in Loxford represents the old, pre-Great-War utopia in which there was an established hierarchy and everyone knew his place. Pre-1914 it was hugely important for the Lady Billowses of this world to maintain the innocence of young men such as Albert Herring as a means of keeping the old world order. You need a compliant underclass with aspirations for little more than heavenly reward for it to be possible to send a whole generation to war. When Albert Herring is appointed May King by the citizens of Loxford, part of his prize is an edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the ultimate Protestant manual on how to live a chaste and puritanical life. The incongruity of the gift provokes a titter of amusement in a modern audience.
A richly contemplative evening as classic production returns
English National Opera, 20th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Confirmed Glassophiles will be delighted to see the return to the Coliseum of this superb production of Satyagraha, a non-narrative, abstract meditation on Mahatma Gandhi’s early life and struggles against racial discrimination in South Africa. On paper, it sounds a daunting prospect to the newcomer – an opera sung entirely in Sanskrit (as per the composer’s specifications, regardless of ENO’s mission statement) where the only surtitles are those projected from the auditorium to aid the chorus deliver its lines. The libretto is printed in the programme, but doesn’t represent an ideal skim-read before curtain-up. In reality, if you are willing to submit to Philip Glass’ haunting spiral of phrases and orchestration, it is a powerfully hypnotic piece of theatre drawing the observer in to Gandhi’s spiritual progress.
Slick and subtly disturbing supermarket nightmare
Glyndebourne on Tour, Milton Keynes, 19th November 2013, Sebastian Petit
And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say. But opera audiences need to beware in straightened times, with a government almost wholly unsympathetic to subsidised art: to quote the hackneyed phrase “Use it or lose it”.
Cucchi's excellent New York setting let down by cast
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 15th November 2013, Nicola Lischi
If Anna Bolena updated the dramatic characters of an opera seria, L’elisir d’amore - a comic and rustic rendering of the Tristan and Isolde tale – redefines the elements of the “commedia buffa” of the eighteenth century, giving birth to a new terminology. Thus, the specification of “melodramma giocoso” of Elisir acquires its meaning in the moving, pathetic and elegiac smile that perfectly counterbalances the “buffo” laughter of the classic comic opera. And Donizetti pushed this semantic subtlety of the words even further when he called Don Pasquale a “drama buffo”.
'Shabby little shocker' describes the production rather than the opera
Metropolitan Opera, 9th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Putting tried and trusted productions out to grass and replacing them is always a gamble. ENO unveiled its new Magic Flute last week, a spritely filly though some will hanker after Hytner’s faithful old nag. When the opera is as iconic as Tosca and the production is Franco Zeffirelli’s, the stakes are raised. When the Royal Opera retired its Zeffirelli production, which had done sterling service since 1964, it replaced it with an utterly inoffensive one – handsome in its way. But when the Metropolitan Opera premiered Luc Bondy’s effort in 2009, there was a feeling that a backlash was inevitable, simply because it wasn’t Zeffirelli’s. This was my first opportunity to see Bondy’s staging, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t hesitate to call for the vet to put it out of its misery.
Stagecraft and illusion in McBurney's contemporary production
English National Opera, 7th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite, created at De Nederlandse Opera, co-producers, where it received its premiere last year. Stagecraft and the art of illusion are very much in focus in a contemporary telling of Mozart’s fairy tale pantomime which frequently delights.
Keenlyside and Mattila excel in fine revival
Royal Opera, 31st October 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Whatever reservations or animadversions I have to express about this revival of Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, of which rather more anon, I think I’d still like to make it absolutely clear from the outset that if you have any serious interest in opera – or perhaps, rather, interest in serious opera - you should, without fail, make certain you attend at least one of the remaining performances on 5th, 8th, 12thand 15th November. Because, all theatrical considerations aside, this is the most musically accomplished account of the score I’ve heard in an opera house since 1989, strong enough to overcome and largely nullify a staging that both constricts and contradicts Berg’s own boiled-down version Georg Büchner’s unfinished source play.
Our critic sniffs out anarchic Shostakovich in HD
Metropolitan Opera, 26th October 2013, Miranda Jackson
Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nose was not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it.” It received its staged premiere in 1930 in what was then Leningrad. It is thought a single score survived in the USSR in the library of the Bolshoi Theatre, where it was re-discovered in 1974 by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Meanwhile, performance materials must have survived in the USA as the opera received its professional premiere at Santa Fe in 1965.
A production so good it practically defies description
ROH2, 24th October 2013, Miranda Jackson
The experience of hearing Music Theatre Wales perform The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino at the Royal Opera’s Linbury theatre on October 24th was so good it practically defies description. If you are in a position to travel to Llandudno on November 2nd or Swansea’s Grand Theatre on November 26th, do so and I personally guarantee you will not regret it. The Linbury had been re-aligned so that we, the audience, along with the performers felt as if we were in an alchemist’s crucible, such was the unparalleled intensity of this experience. Those who didn’t fall by the wayside were rewarded with a performance of pure gold.
A primitive, earthy, '80s classic
ROH2, 21st October 2013, Miranda Jackson
Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek is a re-working of the Oedipus myth, perhaps the finest tragedy to survive from Ancient Greece and contains the traditional elements of pollution (miasma) and catharsis. Music Theatre Wales’ award-winning production at the Linbury Theatre (described by the composer who was present as “amazingly powerful”) presents a distinctly modern dénouement about transcendence and the power of love.
Haunting imagery in this fine revival
Opera North, Leeds, 17th October 2013, Geoffrey Mogridge
Opera North is celebrating the Britten centenary in style, presenting a trio of his operas in their autumn season concluding with Death in Venice which is being seen in Leeds for the very first time. The production was originally directed by Yoshi Oida and first staged at the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival starring Alan Oke and this talented tenor reprises his interpretation in Leeds, under revival director Rob Kearley.
Royal Opera, 17th November 2013
Thomas Allen's Venetian production doesn't quite catch fire
Scottish Opera, Glasgow, 15th October 2013, Kelvin Holdsworth
Scottish Opera has produced a solid and pleasing Don Giovanni but one which, though it contains some fine singing, takes few risks and makes few demands of its audience. Sir Thomas Allen sang the title role for years so knows the piece inside out, therefore this opportunity to direct the work must presumably be a distillation of the insight and wisdom that he acquired though working with countless others on different productions.
Things began well enough with a strange masked figure suddenly appearing centre stage and beckoning the audience in during the initial doom laden chords of the overture. The mask was the first clue that we had been transported to Venice.
Minghella's arresting, glossy production returns
English National Opera, 14th October 2013, John E de Wald
Launched at English National Opera in 2005 and now back for its fifth revival at the Coliseum, Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly has become something of a familiar face in London. A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Lithuanian National Opera, the work is a visual feast; polished, alluring and vibrant; without doubt, it remains one of the most striking on-stage sights in town. Co-directed with Minghella’s wife, Carolyn Choa, it was the only opera staged by the director more commonly known for his work in film - his more prominent credits include The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley - and indeed, there is more than a touch of the cinematic in its boldly painted colours and flowing, stylised tableaux.
A glass half-full
State Opera of South Australian, Adelaide, 12th October 2013, Sandra Bowdler
It is hard to think of another opera as gloomy and portentous as La forza del destino, one of Verdi’s late-ish operas (1862), set in Spain and Italy during the Wars of the Austrian succession in the mid-eighteenth century. Like those wars, the opera is incredibly complex and straining of one’s credulity, but this Opera Conference (a partnership of Australian opera companies) production has gone for a boots and all approach in bringing it to the stage. The thrust of the opera is that the ultimate destiny of us all is death which cannot be avoided, and the production has taken this message to heart with great gusto, festooning the stage with memento mori of every kind. Not only a giant skull, dominating the opening and many subsequent scenes, but a chorus dressed in black robes with death masks appear at different points, and indeed the whole cast appears with deathly makeup including black eyes for all. Apparently the directorial team wanted to throw a hint of zombie into the mix, certainly catching a 21st century Zeitgeist, if not exactly an 18th or 19thcentury one.
A good Melitone and conductor cannot save this Forza
Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 11th October 2013, Nicola Lischi
La forza del destino is a profoundly probing opera about allegiances: to parents, to lovers, to family, to country, to God, to oneself. Destiny drives its characters apart from those they feel most closely bound. Preparing to escape her beloved home with her lover, Leonora describes herself as an orphan, and very soon she is one. Alvaro is an orphaned Peruvian of Incan ancestry, living incognito in Spain and Italy. Carlo is forever trying to regain through vengeance that family honour lost to him when his father is killed and his sister, as he prefers to believe, dishonoured. It is no accident that in this opera of doomed allegiances the lovers meet only twice - at the beginning and at the end – and that three of the greatest passages in the work are monologues in which the characters reveal, directly or by inference, their lonely defencelessness. Beyond all this there is an allegiance to God, but that can be consummated only in death, as the final moments make clear.
Despite taking the scissors to Cavalli's score, a fine performance
English Touring Opera, Britten Theatre, 10th October 2013, Llyr Carvana
Sex, infidelity, failed assassinations, disrespectful servants and a decidedly un-21st Century view of human deformity;English Touring Opera’s season of Venetian operas continues with Cavalli’s Jason (or Giasone, to give the original Italian title), first performed in 1649. Composed for the first public theatre in Venice, the Teatro San Cassiano, Giasone went on to be one of the most popular operas of the 17th Century, with no fewer than 12 manuscript copies having survived (there are only two for L’incoronazione di Poppea in comparison). That so many of Cavalli’s works survive mean they offer an unrivalled view of the development of opera over thirty years, from around 1640 until 1670, covering the change of opera’s function from courtly entertainment, as with Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, through the opening of the public opera houses as general entertainment and on to placing Venice as the operatic capital of Europe. No mean feat.
A vivid, humorous, fast-paced romp
English Touring Opera, Britten Theatre, 8th October 2013, Miranda Jackson
The last of English Touring Opera’s trio of Venetian operas is Handel’s Agrippina, composed for the 1709 carnival season. These operas, very much in the spirit of Carnival, were the cutting-edge art of the day, the equivalent of the Biennale in bringing an international audience to Venice. Not only were they offered for the first time to a paying public rather than a coterie of aristocrats, but were part of the liberal zeitgeist, a reaction against the constraints of Rome and the Vatican in a city where, during carnival, you could transcend class, social and even sexual barriers. Handel went to Venice to steep himself in this new Italian style of entertainment; as a result, Agrippina contains depictions of lust, bawdy jokes, travesty characters and a pretty outrageous plot. It also has a wonderfully ironic libretto by the clearly worldly Cardinal Vicenzo Grimani, translated brilliantly by ETO’s General Director, James Conway.
About as historically accurate as 'Carry on Henry' but strongly cast
Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, 6th October 2013, Llyr Carvana
O Dduw, I’m back on home turf - returning to Cardiff to attend Welsh National Opera’s ambitious mounting of three of Donizetti’s four Tudor themed operas. Having seen Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda the previous evenings, this new production of Roberto Devereux was a welcome and interesting undertaking by the company, and with only three evenings involved, less of a bladder buster than a Ring Cycle. My bel canto bore side laments the omission of the Rossinian Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth from 1829, however it did mean we were spared the horror of a soprano aria scored for harp and glass harmonica, an aria that could be best summed up as ‘an effective piece of claptrap’.
Alden's psychobabble misses the point of Strauss' fizzing operetta
English National Opera, 30th September 2013, John E de Wald
Johan Strauss composed that most famous of operettas, Die Fledermaus, in the Vienna of the early 1870s. The work had its premiere at the Theater an der Wien in 1874, only a stone’s throw away in time from the Vienna of Freud, fin-de-siècle decadence, and the stylish worlds of Art Nouveau and Deco. This chronological proximity forms the basis of director Christopher Alden’s new ENO production; the opulent vivacity of Strauss’s mercurial score paired with undertones of Freudian psychoanalysis and Deco boldness. A co-production with the Canadian Opera Company, Alden’s take is visually arresting and ideologically provocative. Too clever by half, perhaps.
Opera North's Festival of Britten continues with scintillating Dream
Opera North, Leeds, 28th September 2013, Geoffrey Mogridge
After their highly successful Peter Grimes last month, Opera North’s Festival of Britten continues with this fantastic revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Opera North first staged the work in 1982. The current production directed by Martin Duncan was premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in the Spring of 2008 and was conducted then (as now) by Stuart Stratford. Happily, several of the singers from that production reprise their roles in this revival – including James Laing as Oberon, Jeni Bern as Tytania, Henry Waddington as Bottom and Daniel Abelson as Puck. I vividly recall this "dream team" from 2008 and it is wonderful that the aforementioned have returned to their roles for this revival. What a delightful choice of repertoire for Opera North's Festival of Britten season to programme this sparkling comic opera alongside Peter Grimes and Death in Venice.
Poppea transported from Imperial Rome to Stalinist Russia
English Touring Opera, Britten Theatre, 28th September 2013, Llyr Carvana
I have to confess that any production I’ve seen of Poppea has been subconsciously but automatically compared to WNO’s wonderful production from 1997 which first introduced me to the piece (hint to WNO, it’s overdue a revival…). An opera where the bad guys win, ending with them singing the most erotic and sensuous music you could ask for, and where even the ostensible goodies are as devious and conniving as the repulsively attractive major couple. Throw in copious amounts of cross-dressing and interfering deities and you’ve got a box office hit that is as titillating and bitingly satirical now as it was in the 1640s.
Monteverdi meets The Sopranos
Barbican Hall, 28th September 2013, Miranda Jackson
I have witnessed something extraordinary. Four hundred years after it was commissioned by the Duke of Mantua, Monteverdi’s Orfeo - the first surviving work worthy of the epithet “opera” was presented at the Barbican as verismo; and, more to the point, it worked. Picture if you will the Spiriti infernali of Hades singing “O powerful King of the eternal shades” while sporting Aviator sunglasses and a decidedly dishevelled Orpheus rolling about with a wine bottle, wasted after a night of binge drinking. This might sound like your idea of Regietheater hell, in which case you may prefer to look away now.
No harbour shelters peace in Jurowski's hands
Royal Festival Hall, 28th September 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
It’s a good job that Vladimir Jurowski is a Russian émigré rather than citizen, or doubtless this – or indeed any other Britten opus – would be forbidden by the dead-eyed KGB spook still dictating Mother Russia’s political and cultural agenda. Where, one wonders, will this insistence on wholesome heterosexuality leave poor old Tchaikovsky? Well, that’s a problem for the Land of the Midnight Knock to resolve. Meanwhile, back at Sodom Central on the South Bank, the London Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 2013/14 season under its Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor with an elaborately costumed and directed semi-staging of Britten’s career-making 1945 opera, Peter Grimes.
Bieito delivers a dramatic, yet frustrating Fidelio
English National Opera, 25th September 2013, Sebastian Petit
What an infuriating director Calixto Bieito is! There is so much in his new Fidelio (shared with Munich) that is exceptional, thought provoking and dramatically riveting. There is an astonishing set by Rebecca Ringst which, aided by Tim Mitchell’s beautiful lighting, can change from a solid, imposing form to something of airy transparency. The scene when the vast front section slowly tips backwards, without visible support from wires or chains, till it lies flat on the stage is a jaw dropping moment of technical stagecraft. There are moving and truthful performances from most of the principals and numerous striking stage pictures. But against that you have to set the director’s disastrous decision to ditch every single line of Beethoven’s dialogue and replace it with portentous quotes from Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. Most of these additions have no obvious relevance to the original narrative and God help any poor soul coming to Fidelio for the first time: they could have had little or no idea what was going on.
Andris Nelsons conducts Elektra with panache and vitality
Royal Opera, 23rd September 2013, Antony Lias
I must be one of the few people alive who actually relishes Strauss’ toxic and violent score. I hear lyrical beauty, torment and grandiosity that is hard to match in the entire operatic repertoire. In 102 minutes (apologies for clock watching, but it has its uses, especially when it compares favourably to the great recordings) we heard the full extent of The Royal Opera’s orchestra, bringing out all of the stunning nuances of Strauss’ masterwork, illuminating the gruesome tone painting of the score. Andris Nelsons conducted with real panache and vitality. The last eight bars, which we are all used to hearing as a thunderous, crashing and searing climax to the opera, were performed so slowly that it jolted you into thinking that a different conclusion was indeed possible.
A real case is made for a Donizetti rarity
Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 20th September 2013, Nicola Lischi
Composed immediately after a masterpiece such as Roberto Devereux, Maria de Rudenz represents the gloomiest side of Italian Romantic melodrama, whilst Lucia had been its eminently elegiac aspect. The opera was a fiasco at its Venetian prémiere in January 1838. Despite an unusual captatio benevolentiae in the libretto by Salvatore Cammarano (Corrado, one of the leading characters, sings Venice’s praises describing the Serenissima as “stupor del mondo, ed incantato specchio del tuo ciel di zaffiro”, that is “wonder of the world, and enchanted mirror of your sapphire sky”), the audience of the Teatro La Fenice vehemently booed the new opera, although acceptance of the new work increased in later performances.
Maltman's striking Almaviva leads excellent McVicar revival
Royal Opera, 16th September 2013, John E de Wald
It has become de rigueur for the Royal Opera House to eschew the grand opening night spectacles of New York or Milan and launch its season instead with the safety of a favourite revival. Though London was last year gifted with the somewhat bolder in scope revival of Wagner’s Ring, this season marked a return to form with reiterations of Turandot and David McVicar’s Le nozze di Figaro. This was the production’s fourth reprisal at Covent Garden since 2006, and if familiarity left opening night evoking more routine than occasion, it was nevertheless the type of routine the Royal Opera does best; featuring a solid cast, strong orchestral playing, and a staging that is, while familiar, still capable of surprise nonetheless.
Fast, furious, frothy and frenetic LSO season opener
Barbican, 15th September 2013, Mark Pullinger
At first glance, marking Verdi’s bicentenary with a concert performance of Rigoletto may seem a tad unimaginative of the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s an opera you can catch most seasons elsewhere in the capital and the opportunity to explore a rare early opera has been eschewed. However, during its summer decampment to Aix-en-Provence, the LSO played pit band for Robert Carsen’s new production, set in a circus with Rigoletto as a clown, so it perhaps makes for a natural choice, even if most of the principal singers hadn’t made it back across La manche. What a bracing season opener it made under conductor Gianandrea Noseda! If it’s subtlety and nuance you want in your Verdi, best look away now, for this was fast, furious, frothy and frenetic.
Interpretations which have matured like fine wine - a vintage revival
Opera North, Leeds, 14th September 2013, Geoffrey Mogridge
This latest revival of Phyllida Lloyd's acclaimed 1950s costumed production for Opera North, originally premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in October 2006, is inevitably tinged with sadness following the sudden death of Richard Angas during rehearsals. The veteran bass had been preparing to reprise his inimitable portrayal of Swallow, the lawyer. He was seen here most recently as a gleeful, sepulchral-toned Adam Goodheart in Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore. Opera North has dedicated this series of performances of Peter Grimes to the memory of Richard Angas, whose unmistakeable voice and towering stage presence were sorely missed last Saturday evening.
Lindstrom's ice princess rises above this brash, kitsch production
Royal Opera, 9th September 2013, Antony Lias
As revivals go this was a drag, sadly not of the Dame Edna variety which might have livened up the evening (and what a Turandot she would have made). Instead Puccini’s most dramatic music was cursed from the word go by a bonfire-waiting-to-happen-production and a conductor who ought to be directing traffic rather than orchestra of The Royal Opera. Knocking around since 1984, Andrei Serban’s wretched production is a little tired looking to say the least. Like the clap, it’s been around for an age and shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. It’s more Big Trouble in Little China than Imperial Peking. I have no doubt that many will find its lurid costumes and creaking sets very appealing, but to these jaded eyes, it is little short of a pantomime and lacking in imagination.