When the booking originally opened for this concert back in January 2012 as part of the LSO’s 2012/13 season, no actual programme was offered for our edification, the rubric merely noting, styled as above, that it would be in celebration of the Maestro’s sexagennial anniversary (or Diamond Jubilee if, as many do, you regard him as an absolute monarch). I booked for it blind, like everybody else, vaguely imagining that it would play to his known strengths in the Russian repertoire, or else take the form of some extended musical knees-up with lots of guest stars. In the event it only relatively recently became known that whilst the latter expectation would be partially met, in the shape of concert items played by Alexander Toradze and Leonidas Kavakos, the main musical meat of the evening was to be operatic, comprising Act V of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, with soloists both local (in the largely supporting roles) and Russian (in the case of the two principal ones). Now, Valery Gergiev certainly has form in Berlioz, having conducted concert performances here of both Benvenuto Cellini and (on three separate occasions, no less) La damnation de Faust. And his handling of Les Troyens, staged at the Valencia opera house by the La fura dels Baus collective as some Kubrickian space oddity, has been preserved on DVD.
Opera house, concert hall, and now another opera house: the Mariinsky is a company well-served for venues. The concert hall is a particularly versatile space, as this evening’s fully-staged performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrated. For an opera usually staged with large and involved sets, the more modest presentation here came as a refreshing surprise, and the imaginative use of trapeze artists allowed the action to take place in three dimensions. Musically, the performance was a little dour, but as usual, the Mariinsky Company was able to pepper the cast with enough outstanding vocal talents to keep the standards high, even if the English diction often left much to be desired.
What an utterly joyous evening! Even a darkening sky and a chilly interval picnic failed to diminish the fizzing pleasure of this first revival of Richard Jones’ 1940s Falstaff (revived here under Sarah Fahie). Originally playing to rather mixed notices but now with an almost entirely new cast the production coalesced into a superbly sharp, detailed and hilarious experience. The cast worked as a tautly wound ensemble who appeared to enjoy every minute and centred round the astonishing Laurent Naouri as Sir John Falstaff.
Yards of tartan, a tenor as hirsute Braveheart rebel Highlander and a picturesque mural (or murial) of Loch Katrine, which would have had Hilda Ogden green with envy, place us emphatically in Scotland for this new staging of Rossini’s La donna del lago at Covent Garden. Originally planned as a co-production with the Palais Garnier and La Scala, the Royal Opera gave Luis Pasqual’s staging the boot and employed John Fulljames to do the directorial honours instead (oh that it had the courage to do likewise with other co-prods foisted upon it – yes, I do mean Rusalka). La donna del lago, based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, presents a romanticized view of Highland history and Fulljames taps into its events as a ‘museum piece’, not always with coherence. It will have mattered little for many in the audience, who were there primarily for the singing and cheered the cast to the rafters.
In the glorious summer of 1947, Glyndebourne Festival Opera House, the setting for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's chamber opera Albert Herring, must have seemed the very antithesis of post-war austerity Britain. It might be hard to imagine the aristocratic Lady Billows having to produce a ration book; but the whole population had to do so to purchase basic foods such as eggs, bread, milk and sugar. Meanwhile, society was going through immense change as the old order, and with it the rigid class structures, slowly began to erode. Given Britten's distaste of the class system, it is unlikely that he composed Albert Herring solely as a light-hearted rural romp designed to light up people's lives during the post-war drabness. Glyndebourne's founder John Christie is said to have heartily disliked the piece, dismissing it saying "This isn't our kind of thing, you know”. Perhaps Christie's reaction was not surprising, as the sharply drawn characters are parodies of familiar establishment figures and their servitors.
Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company have set sail with a sure-fire summer hit with their delightful new production of The Pirates of Penzance. A real crowd pleaser, this production deserves the success that it will undoubtedly have.
It became quickly obvious during the overture that this was a production that we were intended to laugh at. The seagull saw to that, first being heard crying plaintively above the sound of the orchestra and then appearing on strings from the very top of the proscenium and flying around over an azure curtain.
Carrie Cracknell, a respected theatre director, makes her operatic debut with this ENO Wozzeck. The work demands much of its interpreters, not least a visual conception as compelling as the drama within the music. That’s exactly what it gets, in a production that moves the action to a present-day British army barracks, instilling claustrophobia, social decay and abusive power hierarchies at every turn. Cracknell treats all of her singers as real actors, leading to psychological insights that are all too rare from an opera that is more often played for its shock value. Edward Gardner also seeks, and regularly finds, details and subtleties in the work with his precise and measured reading. But the impressive intellect behind this production, both on the stage and in the pit, never obscures the work’s sheer emotional power. Everything builds towards the searing conclusion, in which the graphic visuals are fully the equal of the intensely powerful music.
Entering the Barbican Hall foyers I suspected I might have, in a senior moment, turned up on the wrong night. While not quite yet colonised by tumbleweed, the foyers were horribly unpopulated considering the centre was hosting a recital by a big name artist like Magdalena Kožená. The rich variety of musical life in our capital can often result in deserving events failing to attract the level of support they deserve. This was clearly the case last night with the lures of the all-star (minus 1) Don Carlo and the opening of Liam Scarlett’s latest excursion into the world of nightmare leading to a less than half-full hall at the Barbican.
Cannibalism, self-mutilation, mad axe murderers, two-headed genetic mutants and women wearing clingfilm – just a few of the things you don’t usually expect to see in your average production of Parsifal. Welcome to the crazy world of Calixto Bieito, whose brilliant and disturbingly nihilistic interpretation of Wagner’sBühnenweihfestspiel is most definitely not for traditionalists, the squeamish or those of a sensitive disposition. For all its sublime music, Parsifal is Wagner’s most dramatically inert opera - yet incredibly, Bieito has somehow achieved the near impossible feat of creating a 5 hour long theatrical experience where it’s impossible to be bored for a single minute.
I’m not personally convinced that Wagner wrote Der fliegende Holländer because he was secretly trying to make some kind of anti-Capitalist ‘statement’, but try telling that to Calixto Bieito, a director who never lets trifling little details like the composer’s intentions stand in the way of creating a controversial piece of Regietheater, or as some may translate it - ‘Eurotrash’. Though his shock tactics are guaranteed to divide critics and public alike, you can’t deny that Bieito’s productions are usually intensely theatrical and thought-provoking affairs. However, in the case of his Dutchman for Oper Stuttgart the whole basic concept of a bunch of badly behaved businessmen in a rubber dinghy sadly fails to hit the mark.
My earliest prevailing image of oratorio - particularly those of George Frederick Handel - is of instrumental textures like clotted cream and the full-throated roar of serried ranks of choristers dressed in flowing white gowns or black evening tails stacked up behind a swollen orchestra in an ornate Victorian Town Hall; or (alternatively) one of the great northern chapel choirs with organ or harmonium accompaniment delivering the annual performance of Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus or Saul.
The most amazing thing about this performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlois that it took place at all. The troubles that have been plaguing the Fondazione del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino are well known and this writer has already mentioned them in other recent reviews. The bottom line is that, without going into details, the Maggio ended up in such a sorry state that a few months ago the Italian government had no choice but to place an external commissioner, Francesco Bianchi, at its helm, so as to shed light on the actual extent of the deficit and try to save the sinking ship.
Cambridge saw an outstanding performance of Handel’s Atalanta, which could compare with anything from a major company. The production, singing and music were all next to flawless, and it was a Baroque production with a slight tongue in cheek style which delighted the audience. Atalanta was written to celebrate the marriage of the Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha to Frederick Louis (or Friedrich Ludwig), the son of King George II of England, in London in 1736. This context is necessary to understand some of the features of the opera, in particular why the plot is considered to be remarkably fluffy, even by the standards of Baroque opera.
The Mariinsky company is very proud of this production of Shostakovich’s The Nose. And so they should be, as this is a spectacular staging that plays to all the company’s strengths. It is a rollercoaster from beginning to end; bizarre and surreal, but also dynamic and constantly inventive. The production premiered in 2004, and after completing its run was taken on tour by Valery Gergiev to Stockholm, Paris, London (the Barbican) and Berlin. Then, in 2009, it was chosen as the work to launch the Mariinsky’s own label. Now, The Nose returns to the Mariinsky stage, this its first revival in four years.
English National Opera announced their new season this morning, boasting ten new (or ‘new to the UK’) productions and four classic revivals. Film director and Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam returns to ENO to lend his talent to a new production of Berlioz’s rarely performed Benvenuto Cellini, with the American rising star Corrine Winters (this season’s stunning Violetta) taking the role of Teresa – the cast also includes Michael Spyres in the title role and Willard White and will be conducted by ENO Music DirectorEdward Gardner. If it’s anywhere near as good as Gilliam’s wacky but brilliant Damnation of Faust then we should all be in for an extraordinary evening.
By his very ubiquity on operatic stages, Puccini can be a difficult composer to get right. Of his works, La bohème is surely the most hackneyed and the most capable of inducing cynicism, not through its own vice so much as sheer familiarity with the plot and the music. Done well, Puccini’s virtuosic talent for melody and naturalistic vitality soars as in little else; and through its intelligent stage direction, scintillating orchestra, and superb cast of principals, this excellent revival of Jonathan Miller’s ENO staging reminds us of just how good the opera can be.
In December 2008 the great dramatic soprano, Elizabeth Connell, stepped into the breach and took on the role of Turandot in the Royal Opera House production when the leading lady was indisposed. At the time she was playing the role of Hansel and Gretel’s Mother. What a contrast: from impoverished wife of an alcoholic husband to indomitable princess. It was a stellar cast in the Humperdinck with Sir Tom Allen as her husband, but the role of Turandot has to be one of a handful of roles which an aspiring dramatic soprano yearns to tuck under her bejewelled belt.
I come not to bury Dessay, but to praise her. Anyone who witnessed last season’s screening of La traviata from the Met featuring Natalie Dessay would have approached this cinema relay of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto starring the French coloratura soprano as Cleopatra with extreme caution. Indeed, those who listened to a Youtube recording of what is purportedly Dessay singing ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ on the opening night of the run could well have returned their tickets. For one performance she withdrew, resulting in Danielle de Niese, whose sex-kitten of a Cleopatra won her worldwide fame when David McVicar’s riot of a production was first seen at Glyndebourne, stepping in to save the show. Yet, despite some evidence of vocal frailty, Dessay emerged largely victorious to fight another day.
For this, one of his numerous 70thBirthday concerts, Sir John Eliot Gardiner chose to deliver an all-Stravinsky programme with an ancient Greek theme: Apollon musagète, and Oedipus Rex. Joining him on stage were the London Symphony Orchestra and, for the second work, the gentlemen of the conductor’s own Monteverdi Choir – a vocal ensemble beyond superlatives. This combination of conductor and ensembles has worked well in the past in other Stravinskian repertoire, including one of the best versions of the Symphony of Psalms I have ever heard (originally on DG but re-released at budget price on Brilliant Classics: 9015) and arguably the greatest CD-recording of The Rake’s Progress (DG 459 648-2). For the most part, the high standard of those recordings was evident last night in London’s Barbican Hall.
Kasper Holten faced something of a critical backlash (not from these quarters) for his use of dancer doubles in his recent Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin, yet their use in this opera isn’t unique – Stefan Herheim did the same in Amsterdam. Both employed flashback techniques to explore the memories of the protagonists looking back on their past. In his production for the Polish National Opera, but filmed in Valencia, film, theatre and opera director Mariusz Trelinski adds a new twist. Who is the mysterious figure clad in white, with deathly pallor, stalking Tatyana and almost directing events?
If, like me, you attended Sunday’s “Flórez and Friends” concert at the Barbican – as opposed to sitting through oceans of orchestral filler in the RFH in order to dribble over the unfeasible length of Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Wälse’ – you may be forgiven for wondering how an audience already in a state of chronic, uncritical delight could possibly be pleasured any more. In which case, you needed to be at tonight’s solo recital, the latest tranche of Juan Diego Flórez’s Barbican residency, which comprehensively proved the time-honoured adage “it ain’t over until the sooty-lashed one sings at least four encores”. The nubile bounced around, whooping; the mature squirmed with satisfaction in their seats, emitting the odd low moan; I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the lame weren’t seen dancing in the aisles, and the dead – always a fair percentage of any opera audience – weren’t newly-risen. Indeed, anyone suffering with scrofula could well have been cured merely by touching his immaculately tailored trousers (though I’m still working out how to explain this to the police).
South African soprano Elizabeth Connell (1946 - 2012) was acclaimed for her performances of the great Strauss, Verdi and Wagner heroines. On Saturday 27 April a special concert to honour her memory will be held at St John's, Smith Square, with all proceeds being donated to the Musicians' Benevolent Fund as well as the Elizabeth Connell Prize, an annual award for young dramatic sopranos.
There are times in every critic’s life when they enter a place of entertainment in a less than exalted frame of mind, wishing fervently that they were not required to sit in judgement on whatever artistic offering is being given that night. This was undoubtedly the case with me tonight as I entered the Barbican Hall. Despite the fact that I had been looking forward to this concert for nigh on six months, a combination of a rotten night’s sleep and an overlarge dinner had put me in a distinctly un-sunny mood. Had what followed been of poor or even average quality it would likely have received a fairly un-indulgent review. Fortunately the evening was so far up the scale of excellence it is in danger of receiving a rave.
Daniele Gatti was the Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for 13 years, from 1996 onwards: and the net result of his long and faithful devotion to them was to end up occupying a kind of twilight existence, seen somehow as not central to the city’s musical activities, having allied himself to the Cinderella of London orchestras. Happily for him, the rest of the world was rather more aware of his worth, and no sooner had he left than he was ensconced at Bayreuth, La Scala and the Met, as well as consolidating his position as a favoured guest with most of the great international orchestras. But after having conducted his way through most of the Verdi repertory at the ROH throughout the 1990s as the House’s Principal Guest Conductor year-in, year-out until the closure, he only reappeared there in 2001, promptly to vanish for the next eleven seasons. When he finally returned last year, to lead the new Falstaff, he was greeted with a homecoming hero’s sense of welcome. And something similar could be sensed tonight, at the Southbank-resident Philharmonia Orchestra’s major contribution to this year’s ongoing Verdi bicentenary celebrations.
Mozart and Schikaneder’s bizarre opera can be told in almost any way a director chooses - from Peter Sellars’ disastrous Glyndebourne LA freeway “retelling” through Julie Taymor’s Lion King spin-off to various “traditional” versions which seem little removed from pantomime. Fortunately David McVicar’s production pays the work the compliment of treating it seriously. And if the comic aspects recede to give way to the serious thread of the story I, for one, am not going to quarrel with that decision. Most importantly, this emphasis allows the two leads, often reduced to dully serious interludes between the Papageno scenes, to blossom and grow as characters.
When this pair of concert performances of Britten’s most ingeniously crafted opera – literally, variations on a theme - was first announced early last year as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2012/13, the conductor was meant to be Sir Colin Davis, the band’s Principal Conductor from 1995 until 2006 (after which he became its tirelessly hands-on President). Alas, illness intervened, and the last performances he gave with the LSO in their home hall were the two Der Freischützen almost exactly a year ago - the first of which I reviewed here - followed by dual outings of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts in St. Paul’s Cathedral in July, his absolute public dernière (and a rather more fitting use of the building than that in which it presently finds itself embroiled, hired out for a has-been politico’s overblown obsequies). Sir Colin was too ill to conduct, or even attend, his own 85th birthday concert last September, and we had all long-since been advised that he would not be conducting these Turns of the Screw, entrusted instead to Richard Farnes, the Music Director of Opera North.
Pole-dancing in early Verdi? Things are clearly looking up in the world of Regietheater! A red telephone box parked stage right in University College Opera’s annual production indicated that this wasn’t going to be your traditional I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Verdi’s fourth opera.
Half-naked nuns, Eurotrash and a stunning debut from Elisabeth Meister; what more can you ask of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia? Well, if Lucrezia had accidentally slipped some of her poison into director Guy Joosten’s mug of Ovaltine I don’t think anyone would have been unduly upset and we might have been spared the travesty of his otiose and banal Regie.
There are fairies at the bottom of der Garten. On the Wagner-Verdi bicentenary dual carriageway, the Chelsea Opera Groupcharabanc trundled into town for the first of its celebrations to offer up a rare slice of early Wagner.
It is almost a decade to the day since I last had the pleasure of hearing/seeing a production of a contemporary opera which, in my humble opinion, was damn near perfect in every respect.
Red curtains peel apart tentatively to reveal a chair… and another set of red curtains. And that, in essence (save for a stack of books) is it for the set and props department in Peter Konwitschny’s spare, pared-down version of Verdi’s La Traviata for English National Opera. Life for Violetta is a performance and as each set of curtains draws aside, we get to see the layers of her character stripped away until the final scene. When the last curtains part, there remains only the black void of certain death into which she staggers – there are no more curtains to hide behind.
Jennifer Rowley, the replacement Isabelle who found herself replaced at short notice before the premiere of Laurent Pelly’s production of Meyerbeer’sRobert le diable at the Royal Opera House this season, has spoken out about what really happened. At today’s new season press conference, Music DirectorAntonio Pappano, when questioned about the production, which was a critical failure, was defensive about the last minute cast changes and the way it was reported by the press. He also suggested that there are more cancellations in the opera world than there used to be, commenting ‘"It happens more and more. There's something about this generation of singers, that they are weaker in their bodies or don't care.’
Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.
(New poems added: 04/08/2010)
Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.
Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.
Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. Michael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.
Linda Richardson is to sing the title role in Welsh National Opera's upcoming Anna Bolena. Robert McPherson sings Lord Percy and Katharine Goeldner is Giovanna Seymour.
We hear that Puccini’s Manon Lescaut will feature Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann, while the much-anticipated new production of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, directed by Stefan Herheim, has a cast including Erwin Schrott, Marina Poplavskaya, Bryan Hymel and Michael Volle. Simon O’Neill is set to appear in a new production of Parsifal. Ailyn Pérez returns as Liu in Turandot, as well as a run of La Traviata opposite husband Stephen Costello.
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Reviews to be published shortly:
Falstaff - Glyndebourne Festival Opera
If I had been commissioned to design the booklet cover for this disc of Verdi arias and duets featuring Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, it would feature an image of a Brazil nut, emblazoned with the face of dear old Giuseppe, quivering beneath a sledgehammer. This would give the prospective purchaser an idea as to what to expect from the tenor’s approach and it would, indeed, be as unexpected as it is disappointing. I rate Beczala extremely highly and he would be in my top four tenors performing this sort of repertoire today (Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja and the underrated Marcelo Álvarez being the others), but this recital disc will do his reputation few favours.
The Rosenblatt Recitals, now based at the Wigmore Hall, offer a rather unique opportunity to hear some of the world’s most impressive singers to best effect, performing their own chosen repertoire in an intimate concert setting. There is a welcome purity in hearing an artist sing a concentrated programme of music tailored to their voice and taste, and to hear it unembellished by full-scale orchestra, granted only the elegant simplicity of an accompanying piano.
As if to remind us that summer festivals are just around the corner, despite the prevailing frozen conditions over much of Britain, Opus Arte has issued its new production of Janacek’s evergreen opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened Glyndebourne’s 2012 season. Although Melly Still’s production didn’t meet with universal acclaim and is clumsily directed at times, the performances here have much to recommend them, not least the feisty Vixen of Lucy Crowe and the weathered Forester of Sergei Leiferkus.
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