Barbican Hall, 11th January 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
For a world-class, front-ranking diva, Magdalena Kozena has quite the most bizarre dress-sense of any of her contemporaries, appearing tonight in a terracotta-coloured thing, part Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and part Helena Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett (she of the people-filled pastry). Still, if the worst thing you can find to say about any given “evening with diva” type event concerns the frock, then clearly matters musical must have been pretty satisfactory. And so, most happily, they were. The programme seemed to me to have been specifically chosen to reaffirm what one might term Kozena core values: Mozart and Haydn, with none of those excursions into music either later or earlier with which she has been latterly, and some of it arguably not all that successfully, much involved.
Wigmore Hall, 9th January 2014, Sebastian Petit
The Rosenblatt Recital Series, now in its second year at the more congenial surroundings of Wigmore Hall, has an excellent and well-deserved reputation for introducing young singers to London as well as re-introducing a few much more senior figures (Leo Nucci was slated to appear last December before he cancelled due to illness and this year the evergreen Dennis O’Neill will also perform). Tonight’s recital introduced us to the young Italian soprano Rosa Feola. On the evidence of online biography this was her second London appearance, having been well reviewed as Servilia in La clemenza di Tito at the Barbican. Up until now her roles have mainly concentrated on the lighter soubrette type roles, but listening to the firm attack and impressive blade to her voice, I suspect that she will find her long term career as a lyric soprano.
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.
Before allowing our Opera Britannia critics time off for good behaviour (or not!) this Christmas, we persuaded them to pick out the highs and lows from their 2013 operatic diaries. They were not confined to performances they necessarily reviewed, hence links to the official OB review may well lead to a difference of opinion or two! In a year in which the focus lay on anniversary boys Wagner, Verdi and Britten, there was plenty to sink our critical fangs into. Each of our reviewers was invited to submit their nomination for Outstanding New Production and Best Revival, along with Best Male and Best Female Performances, before disclosing the production or performance that provided their biggest disappointment of the year (cancellations notwithstanding).
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.
As if Christmas isn’t a time to give their golden tonsils a rest, opera singers have frequently taken the (sometimes dubious) decision to regale us with a treasury of carols and seasonal songs. There are a few plums and several more turkeys (youdecide!) in this Christmas cracker of an outbreak of tinselitis from the operatic community! So, deck the halls with festive fioritura, pour a large glass of mulled wine (medicinal purposes only) and enjoy Mark Pullinger’s compilation from Opera Britannia Towers.
Clicking on the picture links take you to the appropriate Youtube video, or you may prefer to skip to our emergency WordPress site, where the links are embedded like Santa in his armchair after his busiest night’s work of the year.
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.
Scholars now cast doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. After the Borgia crest is defaced by Gennaro’s friends (whose families have suffered at her murderous hands), the young man is arrested. Alfonso forces Lucrezia to offer Gennaro a poisoned chalice, which she does, knowing she has an antidote, which she then administers. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.
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.
After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.
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.
Barbican Hall, 28th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If your principal exposure to live opera is here in London – or for that matter anywhere else in the UK – you could be forgiven for thinking Daniel Harding did not have all that much form in conducting any. Never seen at the Coliseum at all, his Covent Garden track record comprises just two operas – The Turn of the Screw and Wozzeck – in 2002 and 2006 respectively, and that’s it. But of course, if you’re a regular at either La Scala, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence, you’d have encountered him practically non-stop over the past ten years or so. Moral: there is no honour for prophets in their own land. And the loss is ours, as tonight’s concert performance of what is basically a long love duet with prologue and coda most emphatically demonstrated.