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, 10th March 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Apparently, when Dmitri Hvorostovsky performs in his Russian homeland, every single item is greeted by hysterical applause, a blinding barrage of flash lights, and the sporadic heaving platform-wards of miscellaneous items such as small stuffed animals, or underwear intended for a similar fate. Given the preponderance of émigrés in tonight’s audience – still not enough to produce anything like a full house, I note with some surprise - I suppose we can count ourselves lucky that the sum total of distraction amounted to no more than the outbreak of determined clapping the instant, and occasionally before, the piano fell silent after every item, even in single-composer groupings clearly meant to be performed as a set. A Wigmore Hall audience this was not.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Opera North, 16th February 2014, Geoffrey Mogridge
The statistics alone are mind boggling: five conductors, two directors, three pianists,thirty five vocal soloists, with the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North - over 150 artists. On reading through the programme book, bursting with pictures and loving messages of tribute to Richard Angas, the gentle giant of opera, it felt surreal to see his name listed amongst the artists scheduled to appear in this memorial concert to celebrate his life. But thanks to some precious video films we were able to again relish that unmistakable timbre and the awesome physical presence with his deeply carved expressive face. Angas was effectively with us in person, as much as his benevolent spirit seemed to be hovering somewhere above the stage and orchestra pit.
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 to be 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.
A brace of ghost ships disembark on disc
One of the more enterprising celebrations to mark Wagner’s bicentenary last year now arrives on disc courtesy of Naïve. Conductor Marc Minkowski had been considering recording Die Feen, but opted instead for the original 1841 version of Der fliegende Holländer, presented in a single act, coupling it with Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s opera Le Vaisseau fantôme. The two share a tangled history. Wagner had arrived in Paris in 1839 wishing to write for the Opéra and devised a one-act scenario which could take place as a curtain-raiser to a ballet. A libretto and even some music (Senta’s ballad among them) were shown to Léon Pillet, the director of the Opéra, who promptly dismissed it. Instead, he offered to purchase the synopsis (and possibly the libretto) from Wagner for 500 francs.
No deer 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.
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’sThe Rake’s Progress.