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Opera Now provides a unique and all-encompassing perspective on the international opera scene through its lively and colourful mix of news, reviews, interviews, travel articles and commentary.

Read about new productions, festivals, performance previews and world premieres, as well as reviews of all the latest opera CDs, DVDs, books, websites and films.

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Die Zauberflöte at London’s Royal Opera House

10 May 2013, London, UK

Albina Shagimuratova as Covent Garden's showstopping Queen of the Night
Albina Shagimuratova as Covent Garden's showstopping Queen of the Night(Photo: Mike Hoban)

Review by Luis Dias

As someone visiting the UK from India after a gap of five years, I was struck by the richness of London’s cultural life, especially when it comes to classical music. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is undoubtedly the jewel in this cultural crown.

So it felt especially good to be back there, for a shining performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Lavish productions like these are impossible to come by in India, perhaps understandably so. I was watching the audience reaction and some people were obviously ‘regulars’, but there were also others like me, for whom every moment of the visual spectacle and glorious music were being savoured hungrily, greedily.

Albina Shagimuratova was very convincing as the Queen of the Night, and her showpiece aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was perhaps the highlight of the evening, getting several rounds of well-deserved applause. Bass Matthew Rose made a similarly riveting Sarastro, looking and sounding every inch the evil sorcerer/enlightened sovereign. His ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was particularly outstanding.

Simon Keenlyside also stood out as Papageno, not merely for his smooth vocal delivery and gorgeous voice, but for his easy, almost natural command of this ‘strictly-for-the-birds’ role. His Papagena, Susana Gaspar, was vivacious, funny, and their ‘Pa … pa … pa …’ duet crackled with mirth and wit.

Supporting this top-notch cast, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded spectacular under conductor Julia Jones, whose brisk tempi kept energy levels high.

Dr Luis Dias is a musician and writer who recently returned to India after a decade working in the UK. Visit his blog for more details: http://luisdias.wordpress.com

 

Kaufmann triumphs as Don Carlo at Covent Garden

7 May 2013, London, UK

Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo with Anja Harteros as Elizabeth de Valois
Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo with Anja Harteros as Elizabeth de Valois(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Lucky the audience that attended the opening night of this revival.  Let’s gloss over Nicholas Hytner’s patchy and unattractive production, for this was a musical feast, not least for Antonio Pappano’s vibrant and idiomatic conducting and the strong orchestral and choral work.
 
Jonas Kaufmann’s Carlo started slightly hesitantly but soon gained focus, his tone burnished and rich.  He blended perfectly with Mariusz Kwiecień’s Rodrigo, also elegantly sung and a far warmer personality than we usually see in this role.  Likewise Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo emphasised the character’s humanity and loneliness with a large-scale performance and his cavernous bass remains undimmed, likewise his stage presence.
 
Béatrice Uria-Monzon looked suitably gorgeous as Eboli but her high-lying and tangy mezzo was slightly over-parted in this house.  Perhaps best of all was Anja Harteros, whose elegance of person and voice, impeccable musicality and technique combined with sumptuous tone to create an Elizabeth de Valois that may remain peerless for many.  She has created a potentially legendary assumption with just one London performance, for alas she cancelled all further showings (some announced well in advance, some not).  Let’s hope that this was not an inadvertent farewell to the house, at which apparently she has no further appearances planned.

 

Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere

4 May 2013, Houston, USA

(Photo: Felix Sanchez)

Sir Andre Previn has composed his second opera, this time a bittersweet English romance based on Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean's Brief Encounter, drawn from Coward's one-act play Still Life. Our US-based opera critic Charles Ward gives his first impressions of the opera which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on 1 May.


Sir Andre Previn's Brief Encounter  proves to be an engaging, well-crafted and touching addition to the contemporary opera repertoire.

‘Well-crafted’ can be critics’ code for an honourable effort the writer doesn’t want to pan. Not so in this case.

In his libretto, John Caird deftly kept the movie’s story line about the ill-fated affair of the housewife Laura and the doctor Alec while compressing incidents in the film, folding in elements from the play and, crucially, expanding the character of Laura’s husband Fred.

To that, composer Andre Previn has added a cinematic score, reminiscent of Korngold. Quick-cut, chromatic shifts underline the text moment to moment. At the drama's peaks, the music swelled with seething emotion within an unfailingly tonal style.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who portrayed Stella in the San Francisco world premiere of Previn’s first opera Streetcar Named Desire, had a tour de force role in Laura. She was on stage for the entire opera as she related her experiences in flashback form. Futral was impressive for the intensity she brought to the role, displaying an astonishing range of emotions as Laura was convulsed by pleasure and guilt, all delivered in vivid sound. Baritone Nathan Gunn , meanwhile, was  vocally radiant and equally ardent as the more shallowly drawn doctor.

Brief Encounter was not an unalloyed triumph. Caird and Previn stumbled on things that bedevil opera, such as long swaths of interior dialogue or subplots that drift to an end – even though the pair devised an effective and moving conclusion to the opera as a whole.

Accustomed to a world premiere most seasons, the opening night audience in Houston responded generously, especially for Futral, and then ratcheted up its response further when a spotlight highlighted Previn in his seat near the stage.

However, without the iconic cultural hook that Streetcar Named Desire had for an American public, Brief Encounter is likely to join many recent new American operas in a state of limbo. Uncharacteristically, HGO had lined up no co-commissioning companies before opening night (though the company said it has received several inquiries since then).

See Charles Ward's complete review of Brief Encounter in Opera Now's forthcoming July/August 2009 issue

Conductor Sir Colin Davis dies aged 85

18 April 2013, London, UK

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

Sir Colin Davis, who died on 14 April aged 85, was one of the leading lights of the British music scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Opera formed a significant part of his career, especially during the 15 years, from 1971 to 1986, which he spent as music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The son of a bank clerk, his family background was not especially musical, though his own talents emerged relatively early. He trained as a clarinettist and was barred from studying conducting at the Royal College of Music, since he had not learnt the piano – a requisite for would-be conductors at the time. Later, when he had established a successful career, he commented that ‘conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing.’

The frustrations of his early career did not deter him: in 1959, he stepped in to conduct a concert performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall for an indisposed Otto Klemperer and from then on his career seemed to be on an exponential path to greatness. He was invited to become music director of Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1961, championing the operas of Stravinsky and continuing to develop his tremendous affinity for Mozart, whose music, he said, expressed ‘something that is more than human’.  

It was around this time that his 15-year marriage to the soprano April Cantelo broke down and that Sir Colin began to gain a reputation in the industry as being ‘unbalanced’ and ‘difficult’. Sir Colin himself admitted that he was apt to be ‘a bit hard and tactless’. He found himself blocked from key posts, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House

His second marriage to Ashraf Naini marked a new beginning for Sir Colin, underlined by a new philosophy of life which perhaps made him less driven, but more congenial as a musical collaborator.

When the Royal Opera House eventually offered him the job of musical director in 1971, he accepted in the face of backstage whispers that some on the Opera House board considered him to be an unworthy successor to Sir Georg Solti. This was in spite of the credentials that he had already set down at Covent Garden following his conducting of Berlioz’s epic Les troyens and the world premiere of Tippett’s The Knot Garden. Sir John Tooley, the ROH’s chief executive at the time, recalls ‘Colin’s early days as music director at the Royal Opera House were not easy for him, as they had not been for his predecessor. There were some doubts that he could deliver and that he could begin to match some of the world’s greatest conductors. In all of this, the doubters were proved to be wrong.’ During this period, he famously booed back and stuck out his tongue at ROH audiences who were vocal in their disenchantment.

As Sir Colin expanded his repertoire at the ROH, his combination of wide-ranging erudition and passionate musicality came to be recongised and admired. One of his biggest challenges was a controversial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which unfolded between 1973 to 1976. Götz Friedrich’s  conceptual production was problematic for British audiences, but Sir Colin became one of its fiercest advocates once he was convinced of its artistic and intellectual integrity.

The conductor once said ‘the road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same. After his early difficulties, his time at the ROH marked a period where his reputation was finally established and his own equilibrium as a musician was restored after a period of instability. He was knighted in 1980, appointed Companion of Honour in 2002 and awarded the Queen's Medal for music in 2009

Following his departure from the ROH in 1986, Sir Colin’s career continued to expand internationally, entering its final and perhaps most illustrious phase when he was appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. His operatic work with the LSO showed off his experience and grasp of different styles, championing contemporary work and continuing to bring new resonance to the classics: especially memorable during his time with the LSO were his Peter Grimes and Verdi’s Falstaff, both available on disc.

  • Sir Colin Davis, conductor: born 25 September 1927, died 14 April 2013

 

New horizons for the Hungarian State Opera

18 April 2013, Budapest, Hungary

Domonkos Héja
Domonkos Héja(Photo: Tamás Gács)

Domonkos Héja has been the acting music director at Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera since 2011, following the resignation of his predecessor Ádám Fischer. Héja talks to Opera Now about recent developments at the company and his plans for the forthcoming season.

ON: What steps have you taken to change the company's artistic direction since you took over?

DH: We have taken a number of steps designed make the company more visible internationally. Firstly, we undertook a structural reorganisation, which should have been done years ago. This eliminated the status of soloists with contracts for indefinite periods, and gave us the opportunity to find the most appropriate voices and qualities for each role. Last year auditions were held in every section of the orchestra and chorus, ensuring that only the best musicians are now employed, as well as allowing us to engage some younger artists. We now regularly hold auditions for singers, which provide opportunities not only for Hungarians but also foreign artists.

How important is music by Hungarian composers to the identity of the company? Is anything being done to develop the next generation of Hungarian composers while putting a spotlight on important figures from the past?

This is extremely important, and I am pleased to say that in Hungary the name of our great nationalist composer Ferenc Erkel is already strongly associated with my efforts to promote his music. Prior to becoming the company’s music director, I conducted a production here of Erkel’s Bánk bán, using the original version unknown by earlier generations. Our current season began with the original version of Erkel’s opera Hunyadi László, and we have made recordings of both operas.

Erkel is an emblematic composer in Hungary: while his works show the impact of bel canto and French grand opera styles, he invented a unique musical language that contains elements of Hungarian folk music in abundance.

Another reason why we want to keep the biggest possible number of Hungarian operas in the repertoire is to safeguard the development of the Hungarian language. Next year we will stage János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, which will be performed together with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. In the future, I plan to perform Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, which has already been premiered in Hungary, and to stage more operas by Peter Eötvös. We have also announced an opera competition for contemporary Hungarian composers, including a biennial prize for new children’s operas.

The company has a huge repertoire of almost 100 productions. What are you doing to refresh this current stock of repertoire with new stagings?

By the end of each season our plans for the next four years are in place. This means we can schedule new productions well in advance and ensure the availability of world-famous stars for special events – and I don’t only mean singers. We are already negotiating with some international celebrities.

The Hungarian State Opera presents 450 performances a year with 5,000 roles, so we would like to allocate a certain percentage of these to guest singers. Artists already booked for future seasons include Kurt Rydl, Rainer Trost, Leo Nucci and Ivan Magri, plus conductors such as Ion Marin, Stefan Soltesz and the newly appointed principal conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Steinberg.

We are keen to rebuild our Wagner repertoire, and plan to stage a children’s opera every year. Next season, for example, we will perform Mozart’s Magic Flute with students from Budapest’s Circus Arts School. Another area of development is our Baroque repertoire: the current season features a Rameau premiere plus stagings of Gluck and Lully.

I’m also a devout fan of Richard Strauss’ operas – the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2014 will be an appropriate occasion for us to provide audiences with a large dose of his art, performed to a high artistic standard.

What difference has the opening of the Erkel Theatre had to the company?

The Erkel Theatre provides an important platform for many artists, which in turn expands the range of work on offer for audiences. In the past, it typically attracted less wealthy opera lovers and visitors from out of town. Building on this legacy it is again becoming the home of affordable but high-quality opera for large crowds.

How does the company harnass and support singing talent within Hungary? Do you run a young artists programme?

I plan to re-establish an Opera Studio and invite directors to create two or three productions each year with young singers. Currently, a large number of talented young singers graduate from Budapest’s Academy of Music and other music colleges in Hungary, but can’t expect anything more than minor roles here, even though a presence at the HSO is indispensable for their development. It is important for them to get used to moving and acting on stage under the instructions of leading directors.
 
It is also crucial for young instrumental musicians to get some insight into the work of the HSO orchestra because they have not been introduced to this form of orchestral work at college. To achieve this, I think it is important to establish an ‘Orchestral Academy’ where our own excellent musicians can pass on knowledge to their younger colleagues. The newly opened Erkel Theatre could be a perfect venue for this.

Please tell us something about your artistic aims for the season ahead.

Apart from the children’s opera I’ve already mentioned, we are organising a Strauss Festival to mark the 150th anniversary of this great composer’s birth. We will dedicate thirteen nights to Strauss operas, presenting a wide range of company productions from the past 20 years. Besides Balázs Kovalik’s internationally renowned postmodern Elektra, we will stage Géza Bereményi’s Arabella, János Szikora’s Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos, Andrejs Žagars’s Der Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’ most grandiose operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten. This series will be the highlight of the season.

The presence of Hungarian composers in our repertoire has also definitely strengthened: upcoming productions include Kodály’s Háry János, Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Pongrác Kacsóh’s folk opera János vitéz, and the world premiere of György Selmeczi’s I spiritisti.

It would take years to replace our whole repertoire completely, so in addition to the premieres we will renew old productions with changes to their lighting and sets, or by adapting the movements on stage. This process has already begun with our recent Parsifal.

Our long-term objectives include staging rarely performed works and real specialties.

 


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