Opera past and present in guises old and new.

Thursday 3 June 2010

As subtle as a Hollywood blockbuster

The Pearl Fishers, ENO, Coliseum, London

Or are we supposed to learn that local customs are right in a local context, when the laws of the gods have been transgressed? Or that it’s always the little people who suffer, and somebody should feel bad about that? The ending is deliberately unsettling, but I was left unsure what, exactly, I was being asked to be unsettled about.

Thursday 6 May 2010

From seductive charm to violent rage

Elegy for Young Lovers, Young Vic, London

The sparseness of the libretto, too, gives the music a sense of purpose and clarity. There’s no singing for the sake of singing, here. Like a well-written play, every line tells, works for that character at that moment. Old Frau Mack has folkish strings to accompany her, but virtuoso melodic lines for her mystical flights of vision and, later, emotion.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Janacek’s women

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera, London / The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera House, London

If nature in Katya Kabanova is sweet freedom, always out of reach,  in The Cunning Little Vixen it is everywhere in all its amoral power. The eponymous little Vixen, caught by the sleepy Forester and taken home as a plaything for his children, never yields to domestication. Even when tied up for biting a tormenting child, her spirit is swinging on a trapeze beneath the moon.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The comedy (and tragedy) of class

The Gambler, Royal Opera House, London

Alexei starts with unrequited love and a social situation that leaves him few options. Babulenka starts with gambling for (whisper it) sheer fun and then loses her fortune almost wilfully to spite her callous relatives. Are these stories not more interesting and more believable than broad-brush comparisons with zoo animals?

Saturday 23 January 2010

Unsettling, ambiguous, right

The Rake’s Progress, Royal Opera House, London

Between Mozartian recitative – complete with harpsichord – and lyrical duets and trios, passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir score (or an atonal chamber concert) place the opera firmly in the 20th century. The folktale storyline is echoed by folksong-like tunes and lyrics, and at times the singers address the audience directly, somewhere between Brecht and music hall.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Live merrily in cheerfulness

Le Grand Macabre, ENO, London Coliseum

The performances are astonishingly physical, the singers making real contact with each other and performing both comedy and sensuality with confidence. Susanna Andersson, who sings both Venus and Gepopo, chief of the secret police, is outstanding in combining acrobatic movement, masterful comic timing and two coloratura soprano roles.

Common people

Jacko’s Hour, Bridewell Theatre, London

The pared-down simple scoring of Jacko’s Hour is not simply a matter of pastiche – a disjuncture of distinct styles – but a reminder that opera has always been a hybrid tradition brought alive in local contexts.

Cara Bleiman in • MusicOpera
Friday 7 August 2009

Not a tidy tragedy

Kat’a Kabanova, Opera Holland Park, London

Getting on for a century old, this piece feels very modern. Partly because the music is neither dusty nor ostentatiously avant-garde, so it hasn’t dated. Partly, too, because it is a classically naturalistic work, in which the details of character and setting show a specific world which is not timeless, but of its time.

Thursday 9 July 2009

In love with love

L’Amour de Loin, ENO, Coliseum, London

This is less the story of a relationship than an exploration of why two people choose it instead of a real relationship. When Rudel’s actual poems are sung in the medieval French, the music takes a turn that evokes the music of that period, full of harsh, primitive harmonies, archaic scales and a note of loss and sadness. These songs are what bind Jaufré and his Countess together.

Friday 12 June 2009

Transient convenience

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera, Coliseum, London

Flocks of paper birds on long sticks rise and wheel over the garden, and the menacing entrance of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is accompanied by twirling black ribbons wielded by the black-veiled puppeteer chorus. At times, their ninja-like presence is distracting. Using Bunraku-style puppets can feel pointless. What does it add that a real child could not do?

Chilling discords

Peter Grimes, English National Opera, Coliseum, London

Paul Steinberg’s sets manage to capture the fishing-town feel, at once bleak and claustrophobic. But the visual style of the production is almost expressionist, with its high, slanting blocks of architecture and stylised movement.

Friday 27 March 2009

Night waiting for dawn

Dr Atomic, English National Opera, Coliseum, London

The music continues to be glorious. The staging is evocative, the visuals epic. But there is no suspense. We know the end of this story, after all. We know it will detonate, there will not be a chain reaction that ignites the atmosphere, Oppenheimer will live to doubt his decisions.

Monday 22 September 2008

Slightly mad but strangely workable

Opera Shorts, C Central, Edinburgh

One of the first Edinburgh Fringe musical shows to not be a ‘musical’, Opera Shorts is based on a similar format to the fashionable ‘Future Shorts’ film series, now a nationwide phenomenon.

Sarah Boyes in • MusicOpera
Friday 11 July 2008

Finish in time for fireworks!

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera House, London

Are we not the very ones who will be ‘falling asleep after dinner’, as Zerbinetta predicts? If art is being prostituted to please a philistine appetite, don’t they mean us, with our pre-theatre dinners and post-theatre drinks?

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Grimeborn Opera

Arcola Theatre, London

Is it far-fetched to imagine that any piece of music can be staged and shown in a theatre? These performances outlined three different visions of love and desire, where music is both the starting and final point of a human adventure… the adventure of musical composition itself.

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English National Opera
Royal Opera
Streetwise Opera

Opera, dead or alive? Relevance and value in the arts today
Audio recording of a Battle of Ideas Satellite debate at the Folkoperan in Stockholm, 16 October 2010
(Debate in English, with short introductions in Swedish)

Worth three tenors? The value of opera
Video recording of a session at the Battle of Ideas festival in London, 30 October 2010