Leyla Gencer Voice Competition

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Final curtain for Opera Ireland with Puccini's Tosca

23 November 2010, Dublin, Ireland

Orla Boylan (Tosca) and Marcelo Puente (Cavaradossi)
Orla Boylan (Tosca) and Marcelo Puente (Cavaradossi)(Photo: Opera Ireland)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

Opera Ireland’s (OI) last ever performance was on the night when the announcement finally came that the country was requesting a reputed €90 billion bailout from the IMF and ECB. This, of course, puts the demise of the 69-year-old company in some perspective, but it is nonetheless a medium-seized tragedy amid the greater one, more so since the impetus to replace the company with a proper national outfit seems to be weakening with every passing instant. One piece of good news is that Opera Theatre Company (OTC), the small-scale touring group which was originally supposed to be wound up at the same time as OI, is benefiting from a sort of rolling reprieve which may, in time, see it grow to provide main-scale opera as well: this would surely be the best solution.

It is also the end, of course, of Dieter Kaegi’s 13-year stint as artistic director, a reign which has been marked by imagination, cussedness and an admirable determination to avoid the obvious. Kaegi introduced ten works to the company’s repertoire, cast a lot of Irish singers, and brought a bit of rigorous Swiss Regietheater to the Dublin bourgeoisie with his own productions. In recent years, relationships were established with various European houses for the sake of co-production and similar arrangements, and the final Tosca was produced in association with Theater Lubeck.

In fact Jakob Peters-Messer’s staging was fairly trad, except for a modern setting, a box for the Attavanti chapel, a somewhat industrial last act set and a spurious metatheatrical crowd scene thrown in for Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s putative leap. This could all have been fine with a bit more meat in the direction itself, but the characters were apparently doing not much thinking and more walking around in a daze. Amarilli Nizza alternated as Tosca with Orla Boylan; I saw the former, who has the glamour for the part but a pretty broad vibrato somewhat compromising what is a good-sized and attractive voice.

We got equally small amounts of interest from Marcelo Puente’s Cavaradossi, though he too sang well without ever seeming entirely secure. Dimitri Platanias brought some uncomplicated bullishness to Scarpia. What in fact made the evening memorable was the orchestral performance, a staggeringly romantic reading by conductor Gianluca Martinenghi which made ‘Vissi d’arte’ sound something like the intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana; but the speciality was an extraordinary degree of intimacy in the music, the string-quartettish nature of Puccini’s writing apparent when the textures slimmed down, and some really expressive playing that brought out the essentially human angle of this ghastly story.

So, goodbye Opera Ireland and goodbye to the sweet, if perennially boiling, Gaiety Theatre with its undulating balconies like fairground waltzers. It’s been a pleasure visiting the opera in Dublin these ten years or so, and I look forward to coming back for OTC’s next show, Don Pasquale, touring from February.


American baritone wins Stella Maris Vocal Competition

22 November 2010, London, UK

Prizewinners John Chest and Daniela Mack on board the MS Europa
Prizewinners John Chest and Daniela Mack on board the MS Europa(Photo: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises)

American baritone, John Chest, has won the second annual Stella Maris International Vocal Competition.

He also received the audience prize worth €15,000 and the opportunity to make a test recording with Deutsche Grammophon.

Joining Chest on the prizewinners’ platform was mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who was awarded a guest engagement at Washington National Opera as well as a concert performance at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland

All eight participants were nominated by leading international opera houses in Europe and North America.

Chest is currently a member of the Opera Studio at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, while Mack was a former Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera and now appears regularly with the company.

The Competition took place on board the MS Europa during a cruise from Istanbul to Aqaba. Opera Now correspondent, Yehuda Shapiro, was on board to cover events as they unfolded via his special Stella Maris Vocal Competition blog.

Next year’s Stella Maris International Vocal Competition will take place on a cruise around the British Isles between 5 and 20 July 2011.


Preview - Alexander Raskatov's A Dog’s Heart at the ENO

17 November 2010, London, UK

'A Dog's Heart' at De Nederlandse Opera
'A Dog's Heart' at De Nederlandse Opera(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Heart opens at English National Opera on Saturday 20 November. Opera Now correspondent, Jordi Kooiman, reports on the recent world premiere of this Anglo-Dutch co-production.

Alexander Raskatov’s first opera, A Dog´s Heart, received an enthusiastic reception at its world premiere last June, given in Amsterdam by De Nederlandse Opera.

The restless, exuberant music turned out to be a perfect springboard for Simon McBurney, artistic director of the Complicite theatre company. McBurney’s ingenious, comical staging captured the spirit of Russian satire at its best.

Raskatov (born 1953) has a penchant for writing music vocal scores, but until now has never written an opera. For his debut in the medium, he chose a work based on the famous novel, Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце), by Mikhail Bulgakov.

The work tells the story of a mongrel named Sharik, given a human form by Professor Filipp Filippovich. Sjarkov turns out to have a rather cruel and intractable character and as time passes, the situation gets out of hand and the professor changes him back into a dog.

Bulgakov used his novel to criticise the Soviet system, and this satire resonates in Raskatov´s music. His vocal writing is exuberant, sometimes to the point of absurdity in Sharik´s ‘barking’ way of singing, and in the high, hysterical screaming of Zina the maids.  The lyrics are humorous yet remain sharp. None of it is really serious – but then again, it is.

In the meantime, the orchestra evokes the rapidly shifting atmosphere of the work. The humour and pace of the story are enhanced by its constantly changing musical themes. Amid all the flamboyant colour there is a serious undertone to be heard in the nationalistic music that references the Soviet era.

The only weakness is to be found in the childish way in which the Sharik is portrayed in his human form. Rastov’s high falsetto writing makes Sharik come across like a stubborn toddler rather than a cruel anthropoid dog.

Simon McBurney’s brilliant staging was largely responsible for the world premiere’s success. The actor/writer/director tells the story straightforwardly, yet with so much action-packed inventiveness (helped by Blind Summit Theatre’s superb puppetry) that it constantly keeps you fascinated.

Seven performances of A Dog's Heart will take place at English National Opera between 20 November and 4 December 2010.


Music Theatre Wales commissions new Philip Glass opera

16 November 2010, Cardiff, Wales

Philip Glass
Philip Glass(Photo: Stewart Cohen)

Music Theatre Wales has commissioned a new chamber opera by Philip Glass to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary in 2013.

Based on Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, Glass’s adaptation promises to be every bit as dark and claustrophobic as his earlier Kafka opera, In the Penal Colony.

The UK premiere production of this brutal work, directed by Music Theatre Wales co-founder Michael McCarthy, is currently completing a 12-performance tour before being recorded for Glass’s own music label, Orange Mountain Music.

“Music Theatre Wales are wonderful to work with and they seem to like these ‘odd’ pieces of mine,” said Glass in a recent interview for BBC Radio 3. Describing the works themselves he added: “I think of my pocket operas as neutron bombs – small, but packing a terrific punch”.

Music Theatre Wales has enjoyed an association with Philip Glass since staging the European premiere of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1989.

Other recent commissions by the company include Michael Berkeley’s For You with Ian McEwan, and Lynne Plowman’s Gwyneth and the Green Knight.



15 November 2010

Shirley Verrett
Shirley Verrett(Photo: James Heffernan)

Christoph Schingensief
Christoph Schingensief(Photo: Klaus Haag)

American soprano known as ‘the Black Callas’

Shirley Verrett has died at her home in Michigan, aged 79. The American opera star, who enjoyed a worldwide reputation for her vocal prowess and electrifying performances, was known in Italy as ‘La Nera Callas’ (the Black Callas) – an epithet awarded for her triumphant portrayal of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth at La Scala in 1975. Not all critics applauded Verrett’s move into the soprano repertory, however, regarding her as better suited to the mezzo-soprano roles with which she had begun her career, such as Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saëns’ Delilah. Verrett herself admitted inconsistencies in her singing, but continued to take on major soprano roles such as Norma, Tosca and Aida, winning adulation from audiences at The Met and other leading international houses. In her later years, Verrett suffered from bronchial allergies caused by fungal spores and performed only rarely. From 1996 she served as a Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan and in 1999 was named as the University’s James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor.

Inspirational singing teacher dies, aged 93

Vera Rózsa lived and taught in London for nearly half a century, coaching a generation of young singers as well as established figures who sought her advice and support. She died last month, aged 93, but will be remembered through the ongoing success of her many former students, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter and Karita Mattila. Rózsa herself was also a distinguished mezzo-soprano, though was forced to give up singing in the 1970s due to breathing difficulties that she later turned to her advantage: "If anyone has trouble with breathing,” she explained, “as a singer, I know what to do." She moved to Britain from Hungary in 1954 and was appointed an OBE in 1989.

  • Vera Rózsa, born 16 May 1917; died 15 October 2010

Provocative German director dies of cancer, aged 49

German director Christoph Schlingensief has died of lung cancer, aged 49. Known for his provocative stagings that tackled historical taboos such as the legacy of Nazism, Schlingensief directed an acclaimed production of Parsifal at the 2004 Bayreuth Festival. He was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and subsequently set up an “opera village” in the West African country of Burkina Faso. His last project, Via Intolleranza II, was rehearsed in Burkina Faso and premiered at this year's Kunstenfestivaldesart in Hamburg.

  • Christoph Schlingensief, born 24 October 1960; died 21 August 2010


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