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WNO announces 'British Firsts' series

15 October 2012, London, UK

Philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty
Philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty(Photo: Emily Polar)

Welsh National Opera has announced a new series of contemporary operas over the next five years, all of which will be performed in the UK for the first time. The British Firsts series, which has been made possible by a gift of US$2 million from the Getty family, will include a staging of Gordon Getty’s Usher House directed by WNO’s general director David Pountney.

This decision to stage Getty’s opera has been questioned by critics, who suggest that WNO’s main motivation could be financial rather than artistic. On the contrary, says Pountney, ‘the whole thing started the other way round, when conductor Larry Foster rang me up and said “come and hear this work, it's a really special work”.’

The series will also include the UK staged premiere of Wagner Dream by Jonathan Harvey and Robert Orledge’s completed version of Debussy’s unfinished one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which will be presented in an Edgar Allan Poe double bill with Getty’s Usher House.


Donizetti's Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera

28 September 2012, Washington, US

Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'
Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'(Photo: Scott Suchman)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
Themes for director-conceived opera productions come in cycles.  We went through the Nazi themes, the pantomime-ending-during-the-overture-idea, and now it’s the play-within-a play conceit.

Last summer director Robert Lepage set Ades’ The Tempest on La Scala’s stage (Opera Now, October 2012), as did director Thaddeus Strassberger for his Nabucco at Washington National Opera (Opera Now, September 2012). In this new production, also at WNO, director Stephen Lawless has placed Anna Bolena on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre, conceiving the work as an operatic historical drama, with a pantomime of the history of Henry VIII’s first three wives taking place during the overture. The Globe’s curved wooden balconies acted as a backdrop to the action, from whence the courtiers and chorus observed, spied, and commented on the happenings on the ‘stage’ below. Lawless’s unified concept seamlessly integrated with Donizetti’s opera. 

The finely nuanced character portrayals etched with their compelling conflicts and contrasting emotions brought the opera to life as it unfolded amidst a set of wooden paneled walls. These twisted and turned to delineate the opera’s different locations, their varied formations creating the atmosphere of the scene, often claustrophobic. Antonello Allemandi’s initial lifeless conducting and soggy tempos resulted in unmoving climatic moments, which combined with lack of stage-pit balance allowed the orchestra to drown out the artists, even when singing at full throttle. But once this problem was corrected, one became immersed in the sheer splendour of the singing, and the power of the performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Ann Boleyn was exemplary, with a voice pure and clarion, nailing thrilling high notes with power to spare, and with believable heartfelt acting imbued with regal airs. Her intensity in the dramatic moments was scorching. Although Sonia Ganassi’s Jane Seymour was not as impressive, she was still effective, singing with precision and feeling. She rose to the occasion in her duet with Radvanovsky when she reveals to Anna that she is Henry VIII’s mistress, one of opera’s highpoints. Oren Gradus portrayed Henry VIII alternately as a mild Don Giovanni, and as a husband, hurt in the realization that his wife married him not for love but to be queen. Vocally his voice lacked colour and nuance, until near the end, when he rose to the occasion as a majestic king. Shalva Mukeria assayed Lord Richard Percy with luscious sound, hitting all his high notes with beautiful lyricism. His passion and fervour for Anna was palpable.

Das Rheingold at London's Royal Opera House

25 September 2012, London, UK

Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda
Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda

Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific
Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific(Photography by Clive Barda)

Review by James Waygood

For all the naked Rhinedaughters and skinless abominations that he has thrown at Das Rheingold, Keith Warner’s acclaimed production still fails to lift this opera beyond being the weakest and most unimpressive of Wagner's Ring cycle. Yet with as strong a cast as the Royal Opera House has put behind it there are still moments that thrill, making this a reasonable evening, if not wholly satisfying.

Though the set, lighting, and video/projection work are visually arresting, one of the issues with the production is Warner's overly cluttered approach. Dormant singers will often fidget and pace in the background, distracting from an opera that is already struggling to hold your attention. Testament to this is just how well the more static moments work, such as Wotan’s goading of the defeated Alberich, and Erda’s doom-mongering prophecy. These are so expertly delivered by the cast that they render the ambitious staging redundant.

What really doesn’t chime are the production’s attempts at overt horror. Alberich’s transformation into a fearsome dragon, despite grotesque and gothic, was executed with laughable and clunky puppetry, and Fasolt’s murder was like a badly cooked steak – overdone and with nowhere near enough blood to achieve the shock factor that the production was aiming for.

Yet Antonio Pappano conducts with a measured lightness, making the orchestra noticed only when needed and leaving the cast to make the most of their parts. Indeed, they are the production’s saviours. Stig Andersen's Loge is delightfully cynical, sly, and sarcastic, and Maria Radner purrs and spits her aria as Erda to spine-tingling effect in a near show-stopping cameo. As for Bryn Terfel, it’s only when Wotan casts off the shackles of being the demagogue’s sidekick that he turns to dominating the stage with an unstoppable power, stunningly nuanced in his exploration of Wotan’s complex pathos.

Ultimately it’s an overburdened production of a fair opera with only its singers stopping it from being dreary. Given the performances here it sets the scene for what should be a much more enjoyable continuation of the cycle. Undoubtedly Terfel will yet again make his mark in one of opera’s most coveted baritone roles, accompanied by a supporting cast that are just as adept as the superstar himself.

A full review of Covent Garden's Ring cycle will be published in our December issue.


Egyptian soprano wins Leyla Gencer Voice Competition

24 September 2012, Istanbul, Turkey

Fatma Said with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under Pietro Mianiti
Fatma Said with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under Pietro Mianiti

Report by Neil Jones

The 7th Leyla Gencer Voice Competition has been won after an inspired performance of ‘Je marche sur tous el chemins ... Obéissions, quand leur voix appelle’ from Manon by the 21-year-old Egyptian soprano, Fatma Said.

Said is currently a student at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin and her polished technique, spirited interpretation and simply gorgeous voice not only won her first prize but also the Doğuş Audience Prize.

Ludmilla Bauerfeldt (soprano, Brazil) came second and Jessica Rose Cambio (soprano, Italy-USA) came third, whilst the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala Special Prize of a three-month scholarship at the Academia was won by Irina Ioana Baiant (soprano, Romania).

The finals and award ceremony took place at the Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday, 20 September and the nine finalists were accompanied by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Pietro Mianiti.

The Italian soprano, Mirella Freni, was head of the panel of judges which included the chief director of the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, Yekta Kara.

Over 170 singers auditioned for the Competition, with 40 being selected to compete in the quarter and semi-finals in Istanbul.

'Bawdy' Arnold opera to receive belated world premiere

30 August 2012, Northampton, UK

Malcolm Arnold in 1958
Malcolm Arnold in 1958

A comic opera by the British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold is to receive its world premiere in his hometown of Northampton during this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival.

A satire on 17th-century manners inspired by William Wycherley’s Restoration play The Dancing Master, Arnold’s libretto started life as a film script by his friend Joe Mendoza. They went on to create the 75-minute score together in 1951, shortly after the success of Arnold’s orchestral suite English Dances.

‘When the pair took the work to the BBC, it was turned down as being too bawdy for family audiences,’ explains Malcolm Arnold Festival director, Paul Harris. ‘They then took it to Granada where Malcolm performed it on the piano as well as singing all the parts. Granada turned it down for not being serious enough.’

The semi-staged world premiere of The Dancing Master will take place in Northampton on 20 October, including an introductory talk by Royal Academy of Music lecturer, Dr Timothy Bowers.

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