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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.

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Canadian tenor Ben Heppner retires from the stage

28 April 2014

Ben Heppner
Ben Heppner(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

The Canadian tenor Ben Heppner has announced his retirement from singing, telling fans via a message on his website that 'I've decided the time has come for a new era in my life'.

The 58-year-old singer is best known for his Wagner roles, including Lohengrin, Siegfried, Tristan and Walther in Die Meisteringer von Nürnburg, but has also championed major roles from the French and Italian repertoire such as Berlioz's Aeneas and Verdi's Otello. In 2010 he played Captain Ahab in the triumphant world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, and went on to repeat this success in San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary. Other major opera houses at which Heppner has been a regular visitor include Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Paris Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Heppner paid tribute to 'the countless people who inspired me, supported me and encouraged me to embark on a fantastic journey over the past 35 years'. He explained, however, that he has 'been experiencing a little bit of unreliability in my voice - and that causes some anxieties - [so] I decided it was time.'

Heppner has recorded widely and is currently signed as an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophon. His DG discography includes DVDs of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meisteringer von Nürnburg and Beethoven's Fidelio from the Metropolitan Opera.

A big personality away from the stage as well as on it, Heppner became a radio broadcaster with Canada's CBC network last year, taking on the job of presenting the long-running programme Saturday Afternoon at the Opera as well a his own new show Backstage With Ben Heppner.

Alongside his broadcasting roles, Heppner plan to continue hosting masterclasses, coaching singers for roles and appearing on voice competition juries.

Penderecki’s Ubu Rex at Opera Bałtycka

28 April 2014, Gdansk, Poland

Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka
Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka(Photo: Sebastian Ćwikła)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

This grim comedy of murder, greed, betrayal and lust for power by the lowest rung of social order is a political allegory played out as the Theater of the Absurd. Based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the uncanny prophecy of the evil perpetrated by Europe’s 20th-century dictators, whose plot was inspired by Macbeth, Ubu Rex parodies theatrical masterpieces and mocks the musical language of classical opera and avant-garde music.

Pere Ubu, the grotesque protagonist, at the instigation of his wife, Mere Ubu, has killed the king of an imaginary Poland and usurped the throne. He murdered the nobility and stole their property, slaughtering the bankers so as to collect and keep the taxes for himself. The people rose against him and Ubu escaped. In this work which satirises the artistic and cultural ideals of both past and present, director Janusz Wiśniewski filled the stage with caricatures. Opening and closing the opera was a chorus of misfits, some from the Addams Family (Mere appeared as Morticia), others with debilitating diseases and the walking dead. Ubu was a hunchback in a court jester outfit à la Rigoletto, wearing a tall rounded cone. His ‘friends’ were a dandy, a Moor, two transvestites, a noblewoman and a soldier in battle dress. A crude, mischievous midget couple followed him. The stage was reduced to a claustrophobic room, the sparse set consisting of a large table covered with white tablecloth and a number of wooden-slat chairs, rearranged to designate different locations. Two armoires topped with suitcases flanked either side, with escape routes through their doors.

Penderecki’s music juxtaposes tonal and atonal among its contrapuntal outbursts, fusing diverse, animated sounds and screeches with smatterings of jazz and pop, military fanfares, repetitive mantras, and direct and indirect musical quotations ranging from Bach, Mozart and Rossini to Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky, including the famous Clock Scene from Boris Godunov. Rossini arias are particularly mocked, sounding more like musical hiccups than bel canto. Ubu Rex is a quintessential pasticcio.

The large cast, especially Karolina Sikora and Jacek Laszczkowski as Mere and Pere Ubu, executed their roles with aplomb, and maestro Wojciech Michniewski deserves praise for his precise execution of this musically complex work. But it was the director, Wiśniewski, who offered the ultimate political commentary: it’s the ‘little people’ both literally and figuratively who rule the world, as the midget couple claimed the throne usurped by Pere and Mere Ubu.

London hosts awards for opera

13 April 2014, London, UK

Stuart Skelton, winner of the International Opera Award for Male Singer
Stuart Skelton, winner of the International Opera Award for Male Singer(Photo: Jim Winslet)

The second annual International Opera Awards took place at a glittering ceremony in London on 7 April. A total of 21 Awards were announced, including Female Singer Diana Damrau and Male Singer Stuart Skelton, while the Opera Company Award went to Oper Zürich. The late impresario Gerard Mortier was also remembered with a special Lifetime Achievement Award. An auction raised funds for the Opera Awards Foundation, which supports training for young singers.

The Olivier Awards includes two awards for opera. This year’s winners were Les vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera House, named Best New Opera Production, and English Touring Opera, awarded Outstanding Achievement in Opera for its brave and challenging touring productions at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House.

Opera also put in a strong showing at this year’s BBC Music Awards. The Opera category went to Signum Classics for their recording of Grimes on the Beach at last summer’s Aldeburgh Festival. George Benjamin’s Written On Skin continued to garner accolades with the Premiere Award, while the Royal Opera House production of Tosca topped the DVD (Performance) category. Jonas Kaufmann’s disc of Wagner arias for Decca won the Vocal Award.

Gounod's Faust at Covent Garden

7 April 2014, London, UK

Sonya Yoncheva as Marguerite with Joseph Calleja as Faust
Sonya Yoncheva as Marguerite with Joseph Calleja as Faust(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Starrily-cast and much anticipated, this revival of David McVicar’s production was dealt a blow with the cancellation of Anna Netrebko, who decided that Marguerite wasn’t for her. How wonderful that her replacement, Sonya Yoncheva, scored a massive success in the role.  She flooded the house with radiant sound, and had just enough lung power left to sustain the line in the final trio, taken briskly by conductor Maurizio Benini.  Yoncheva was duly rewarded with a tumultuous ovation. 

Bryn Terfel’s Méphistophélès is a scene stealer, but despite some clever effects it is clear that his magnificent voice has perhaps become rather blustery for the part. As Faust, Joseph Calleja gave lots of voice, generally very beautiful, but didn’t do much with it apart from a stunning diminuendo on his top C in the Act III aria.  Simon Keenlyside’s Valentin was a display of healthy vocalism and little subtlety, but Renata Pokupić restored the balance with an elegant Siébel. 

The production remains spectacular, holding an unflattering mirror to Gounod’s Paris, yet at the same time it is somewhat alienating, fizzing and popping with energy and en route losing the audience’s engagement with Marguerite’s fate.  Benini’s conducting has a large-scale confidence that matches the onstage histrionics.

Gounod's Faust runs at Covent Garden until 25 April 2014

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment at Covent Garden

11 March 2014, London, UK

Patrizia Ciofi as Marie
Patrizia Ciofi as Marie(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Patrizia Ciofi has inherited the role of Marie at Covent Garden from Natalie Dessay and I must admit I prefer the relative newcomer (she sang it here in 2012).  Her voice is up to the considerable vocal demands and her interpretation just as funny but less knowing.  Her tone spreads slightly at the top but to be fair she has literally been a trooper and sung despite an infection. Her acting is exceptional – not many singers would dare to mime for two minutes whilst peeling potatoes and still get the house to laugh.

Juan Diego Flórez sings his umpteenth Tonio – not a complaint as he’s on stunning top form. (Debutant Frédéric Antoun takes over – one to watch.) Pietro Spagnoli is a stylish Sulpice and Ewa Podleś is great fun as the Marquise, putting many a baritone to shame: is it too much to ask that the house casts her in something serious and doesn't treat her like a pantomime dame.

Talking of dames, you get Kiri Te Kanawa as the Duchesse, with the bonus of an aria from Puccini’s Edgar revealing some sweetly floated top notes.  Yves Abel conducts with verve and charm and Christian Räth revives Laurent Pelly’s production with a fresh touch.

La Fille du regiment runs at Covent Garden until 18 March.

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