Verdi: Macbeth


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!

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Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten3-half_stars

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”.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Pushkin & Petersburg4_stars

Barbican Hall, 10th March 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor

Apparently, when 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.

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Giordano: Andrea Chénier3_stars

Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 7th March 2014, Nicola Lischi

Ever since its premiere 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).

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Rameau: Les Indes galantes4_stars

Barbican Hall, 6th March 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor

It’s one of the odder 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.

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Donizetti: La Fille du régiment3_stars

Royal Opera, 4th March 2013, Llyr Carvana

Now on its third, 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.

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Handel: Arianna in Creta4_stars

Britten Theatre, RCM, 3rd March 2014, Miranda Jackson

Last night the 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.

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Puccini: Madama Butterfly4_stars

Teatro Carlo Felice, 23rd February 2014, Nicola Lischi

When the Teatro 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.

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Richard Angas: A Celebration


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.

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Rossini: Il Turco in Italia


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.

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Handel: Rodelinda


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.

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Der fliegende Holländer/ Le Vaisseau fantôme4_stars

A brace of ghost ships disembark on disc

Mark Pullinger

One of the more 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.

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Tippett: King Priam


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.

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Britten: Paul Bunyan

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, 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.

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Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

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.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

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.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

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.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas 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."



ENO goes widescreen

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.



Poetry Corner

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)

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Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

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 CelliniMichael 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.

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"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

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Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

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DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now 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. 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.

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