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Salome at NI Opera

10 February 2015, Belfast, UK

Strong stuff: Giselle Allen as Salome
Strong stuff: Giselle Allen as Salome(Photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

Oliver Mears’s unflinching production of Salome stirred up delicate sensibilities among its Northern Irish audience before even a note of the opera was played. This was, however, more than just an exercise in shock-value. It was an imaginative and convincing response to a work set in a warped world inhabited by the strangest people.

In its short, eventful and impressive life, NI Opera has found many advantages to working in this country, the latest being a sly use of the quaint fundamentalism of some of its denizens. Ticket sales for Strauss’s 1905 opera proving a trifle sluggish, it somehow slipped out that Salome’s dance would include 10 seconds of nakedness, whereupon stertorous affront propelled opera into the headlines, and bums onto seats.

Anyone who comes to Salome wanting to be shocked is unlikely to be disappointed, and Oliver Mears’s production was strong stuff. But most impressive was the unity of vision and effect between stage and pit, the utter commitment of a Salome (Giselle Allen) and cast who summoned up some scary intensity on a Sunday afternoon for the second and last performance.

Mears took the thing away from the Gospel to some weird Bible-belt hillbilly bungalow out of David Lynch. Low-level pervert Herod (Michael Colvin) employs armed goons in his yard to watch over the oil tank where ranting Jokanaan (Robert Hayward) is kept for obscure reasons. The rest of the household is amusingly reinvented: trailer-glam Herodias (Heather Shipp) in off-the-shoulder red jumpsuit and massive afro; Carolyn Dobbin a desperate, perceptive (female) urchin, devoted to Adrian Dwyer’s insecure Narraboth; five provincial Jews gone to seed…

There were gaps for the imagination to fill in, and the threat Jokanaan presents was not clear, but locating this in a world where unexplained, creepy things happen was smart and to the point. As an interesting by-product, the twisted humour of this set-up made the opera far less risible than it can be – a phenomenon grounded in Strauss’s misapprehension of Wilde and perpetuated by some grimly serious-minded directors.

This score is not the comfort zone of the Ulster Orchestra, happily reprieved from politically motivated extinction, but under Nicholas Chalmers they produced a supercharged performance to reach heights of sweeping Straussian sophistication – even if not all the detail was clear; this was visceral playing, really focused, and conducted with a controlled frenzy propelling it along remorselessly.

It’s hard to praise Giselle Allen enough – her Salome was an unstinting portrayal, physically and emotionally, but subtle enough to convey an initial grubby innocence transformed into monstrous sexual awakening. There was real animal power and lust, genuinely unsettling, echoed by Hayley Chilvers’s dance, a stunning microcosm of Salome’s ghastly progress. The rest of the cast was stalwart, notably Hayward’s filthy, intense, voice-of-God Jokanaan.

The Trial by Philip Glass – 'a truly brilliant achievement all round'

2 December 2014, London, UK

Johnny Herford as Josef K
Johnny Herford as Josef K(Photo: Clive Barda)

Review by Tom Sutcliffe

Christopher Hampton and Philip Glass’s operatic version of Kafka’s The Trial is really a perfect match between composer and librettist. Hampton’s text, brilliantly faithful to the original, is immaculately crafted for opera, and Glass’s impersonal, minimalist music embodies the narrative functionalism with ideal mechanical appropriateness. The performers’ singing and acting, directed by Michael McCarthy and his Music Theatre Wales cast, humanises what happens in a way that serves Kafka’s concept almost more powerfully than his own original writing.

Glass only slightly illustrates the characters in his music, since his minimalist purpose is never to be expressive. The music is constant, reassuring, forgettable infill, with no inherent meaning: aural wallpaper that just accompanies the action or attaches to sung words. The relationship between music and text is much less tedious than usual in a Glass opera, since it so well suits what happens to the story’s principal character,  Josef K,  himself a quixotic, enigmatic figment.

Simon Banham’s costume designs draw on Kafka’s own interwar era, though in a thoroughly realistic way rather than being fecklessly expressionist. It’s the set, with its rigid plain walls filled with secret doors that give onto spaces from which the unexpected and dangerous promptly emerge, that provides a sense of interminable, desperate functionality.

Michael Rafferty conducts. The multi-tasking cast (four roles for Nicholas Folwell) perform flawlessly in this exploration of endlessly mystifying, innocent frustration. Johnny Herford as Josef K is brilliantly sympathetic and also somehow pathetic. Michael Druiett impresses powerfully as both Uncle and Inspector. Gwion Thomas is memorable as the Magistrate and Lawyer. Paul Curievici is a brilliant Titorelli with his failed solution. Amanda Forbes and Rowan Hellier in the four seemingly reassuring female roles, and Michael Bennett as Franz and Block, flesh out the story’s skewed sense of normality. This is a truly brilliant achievement all round.

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Festival Choice: Lu Festival ti tri Culuri

28 April 2014

Rustic charm: setting the scene for Puglia's new Festival of Three Colours
Rustic charm: setting the scene for Puglia's new Festival of Three Colours(Photo: Mark Glanville)

Report by Mark Glanville

Lu Festival ti tri Culuri (The Festival of Three Colours in Pugliese dialect) is a celebration of the music of a region long blessed by remarkable cultural diversity, from the Greek-speaking and gypsy peoples of Italy's south-east corner, to the Albanians near Taranto and the Provençale speakers in the north of the province. Arabs, Normans, Jews, Angevins and Aragonese have all spent time in Puglia and left their mark there.

Paisiello, Giordano and Piccinni all hail from the region and their works have frequently featured in the programmes of the established Festival della Valle d’Itria which takes place in the noble courtyard of the ducal palace in Martina Franca. Performances at Lu Festival ti Tri Culuri will be given in the grounds of my own rather more rustic country mansion near the beautiful medieval town of Oria.

The original intention had been to run a course where mainly amateur participants would rehearse and perform a production of Carmen, learn local dances such as the pizzica-pizzica and perform a piece of their own choosing (the third colour). But I couldn’t have anticipated the quality of those who came to audition. More used to standing in front of the table of an audition panel than sitting behind one, it was an afternoon of sheer delight for me, beginning with a superb rendition by Rebecca Goulden (our Micaëla) of the Jewel Song from Faust worthy to be heard on any major operatic stage. Another highlight was Liszt’s ‘O quand je dors’ performed by the remarkably mature 20-year-old RCM student Kelly Mathiesson, so poised and moving that I was forced to conceal embarrassed tears. Nor can I quite believe that we have managed to engage the services of our outstanding musical director, Philip Sunderland who has recently been conducting ETO’s Paul Bunyan. Jos Vantyler, a prodigiously talented young actor, will make his directorial debut, moving cast and chorus around the mansion's orange grove, church, courtyard and, of course, garage (a perfect smugglers’ haunt.)

Some may find Carmen an odd or perhaps even uninspired choice, but we didn’t want to overstretch ourselves first time around and given Puglia’s own historic tobacco-growing tradition and not always welcome Spanish presence, it seemed only right to transfer the opera’s action to the region itself.

It’s going to be a crazy week of opera, pizzica, Yiddish song, G & S and whatever other flavours our participants plan to share with us. There are still places available in the chorus and one or two small parts, so if you’re up for a week of sheer diversity and madness, one which, I guarantee, will leave you floating on air a lot more uplifting than Ryan’s, then get in touch!

Mark Glanville's full preview feature about Lu Festival ti tri Culuri will appear in the July/August issue of Opera Now. The inaugural Festival runs from 6 to 12 July 2014

Opera North scores a hit with Puccini's La fanciulla del West

22 January 2014, Leeds, UK

‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson
‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson(Photo: Clive Barda)

Review by Anthony Arblaster

Of the mature Puccini's seven full-length operas, his tale of the American Gold Rush is probably the most neglected.  When you see and hear it well performed and well produced, as it is in this new staging for Opera North by Aletta Collins, you wonder why. 

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West has fewer of the self-contained arias that you find in more popular operas. It is not a work of pathos, and it is not notably sentimental, even though it does have a happy ending.  However, it abounds in an outpouring of Puccinian melody, and offers three fine singing roles as well as a host of rewarding smaller roles for men.

This is a story with plenty of topical resonances: the Gold Rush miners in the opera are working far from home seeking their fortune, like today’s migrants from eastern Europe, and their homesickness is beautifully expressed in the Act I song of travelling cowboy-minstrel Jake Wallace (baritone Gavan Ring). The threat of lawless violence is always present, and in Act III, the miners turn into a lynch mob ready to string up Ramerrez, the ‘Mexican’ bandit who arouses their racist hostility.

Aletta Collins wisely sticks with the opera's original Californian setting, which is evoked in Giles Cadle's simple but effective sets and in Gabrielle Dalton's subtly varied costumes.  Collins's handling of the ensemble scenes which open and close the action is masterly, and rich with significant detail.

Much hangs on the casting of the three principal roles, and here Opera North has come up trumps.  The Sheriff, Jack Rance (in effect the local Scarpia), is ruthless, unscrupulous and consumed with desire for feisty saloon proprietor Minnie. Robert Hayward has all the vocal power needed for the role, and invests it with spine-chilling menace.

Minnie finds the man she really wants in Ramerrez, who disguises himself by the name of Dick Johnson. Rafael Rojas – Mexican by birth – makes him an entirely credible and sympathetic character.  His Italianate tenor has really blossomed and is a treat to hear.

Soprano Alwyn Mellor takes the title role, the lone woman who rescues Ramerrrez and brings out the better side in the miners whom she tries to educate.  She fills it splendidly, and makes a believable heroine. The scenes at the heart of the opera, in which she and Ramerrez get to know each other, are beautifully sung and acted.

This show deserves to become something of a classic, especially under the dynamic yet sensitive conducting of Richard Farnes.

Opera North's The Girl of the Golden West continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 21 February. The production then tours to Nottingham, Salford Quays and Newcastle between 5 and 21 March.

The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013

29 November 2013, Melbourne, Australia

Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried(Photos: Jeff Busby)

Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner
Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner

The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'
The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'

Review by Ashutosh Khandekar

An air of expectation hung heavily around this Ring cycle, Opera Australia’s first, staged in the wake of the runaway critical success of the 2004 Adelaide Festival production, exuberantly directed by Elke Reinhardt (who, in a cruel twist of irony, died in Sydney after a battle with cancer during the run of this current cycle).

A year-long international publicity campaign delivered a clear, confident message: this new production of the Ring would have a strong Australian identity, with an all-Australian creative team, establishing the credentials of Melbourne, rather than Sydney, as Australia’s top opera destination.

The result was a sell-out for all three cycles within 24 hours of the box office opening. Self-styled ‘Wagneroos’ from all over the world descended on the Melbourne Arts Centre for what was the last significant production of the Ring in Wagner’s jubilee year. A street parade through the centre of Melbourne, with celebrities and citizens in horned helmets and blond plaits, launched the event with a real air of celebration.

This outward confidence hid a somewhat less secure genesis. This Australian Ring actually started life in Houston, where the Grand Opera was looking for a co-producer for a new cycle. Opera Australia came on board, but then Houston decided to place its allegiances elsewhere. That left the Australians holding the baby – but they ran with it, turning a problem into an opportunity. In stepped Maureen Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guides, who backed the project to the hilt, both financially and as a tireless advocate garnering support both at home and abroad.
Neil Armfield, one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and an experienced opera hand, was invited to direct, assembling a design team who had worked together on several significant projects; composer/conductor Richard Mills, a distinguished figure in the Australian opera world, was given his first shot at the Ring. Mills, in the end, stepped down, citing a ‘lack of chemistry’ between him and the cast; and before curtain up, there was some last-minute shuffling of the cast itself.

Mills’ replacement was the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, due to conduct a new Ring cycle in Sicily, a troubled affair which self-destructed when funding ran dry. Melbourne came to the rescue, snapping him up for his first staged cycle.

So, there we have the backdrop to this new cycle. What started out as an out-and-out Australian Ring ended up being an altogether more eclectic undertaking, featuring home-grown talent and international names, bringing a curious mix of experience and naivety to the project.

Armfield and his set designer Robert Cousins had already scored an international hit with another saga of a dysfunctional family in their five-hour theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s quintessentially Australian novel, Cloudstreet.  Using the same ‘Poor Theatre’ approach in the Ring, Armfield subverted Wagner’s grandiloquence at every turn. This was an understated, everyday Ring, inspired by a world of end-of-pier entertainments and bourgeois aspirations, with the gods in sharply tailored suits and furs, and mortals in baggy, ill-fitting leisurewear (costumes by Alice Babidge).

There are half-remembered allusions to the Ring’s performance history: exquisite recreations of painted backdrops from the 1896 Bayreuth production of the Ring, showing romantic landscapes of rivers and forests with Valhalla looming in the distance. Nostalgia reigns in Das Rheingold, with its simple pleasures of beach holidays and variety shows. The Rhinemaidens are  showgirls in aquamarine ostrich feathers entertaining the chorus who cheer on with golden pompoms; Alberich is a magician with a box of tricks; Wotan meanwhile, is found assembling the remnants of an old world that is in the process of self-annihilation – stuffed animals either extinct or on the verge, packed into cases, ready to move to their new home as exhibits from a lost era. Fasolt and Fafner make their entrance on forklift trucks, contractors insisting on their fees. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla is a team of cheerleaders brandishing yet more pompoms.

Die Walküre depicts a world of innocence lost, full of threat and menace. Oppressed peoples wander over the landscape as drab refugees. The maiden-warriors in combat gear descend from the flies on steel wires, an air ambulance team clearing the battlefield of the dead.

This was where Armfield’s production began to get a bit lost. What was this all adding up to? Walküre began to make me think that this Ring had no overarching vision – a series of disconnected ideas, evocative as tableaux, perhaps, but at odds with the unified dramatic sweep and rapture of Wagner’s score.

Siegfried hinted at something more thoughtful, though Armfield remained grimly determined to avoid any epic gestures. Only the image of Fafner, a sinister actor making up his face, projected in terrifying close-up on a large screen, provided any sense of a superhuman dimension where the imagination could be unleashed. Götterdämmerung delivered some pyrotechnics by the end, but was for the most part resolutely unheroic with its backdrop of a kitsch suburban wedding.

The underwhelming staging was enlivened by some fine performances. Memorable among them was Warwick Fyfe’s engaging pantomime villain of an Alberich; Heyseoung Kwon’s fragile, touching Freia; Jud Arthur as a violent Hunding and a vicious but strangely vulnerable Fafner; the big-hearted Siegmund of Stuart Skelton, riveting our attention with his emotional incandescence; Stefan Vinke’s stalwart, indefatigable Siegfried, full of adolescent ardour; and an intense, fulminating Deborah Humble as Erda and Waltraute.

Susan Bullock, exhausted perhaps at the end of a long Wagnerian year, fell short of the big moments as Brünnhilde, scuppered by rather static direction that left her to rely on histrionics of her own devising. Terje Stensvold grew in stature to become a satisfying Wotan, though once again, any notion of a heroic aspect to the king of gods was kept firmly reined in.

The Melbourne Ring Orchestra played exquisitely and expansively over much of this cycle. Pietari Inkinen’s interpretation was strong on beauty, poise and balance, but his tempi were often excruciatingly slow and deliberate, killing any dramatic momentum.

Armfield and his team have given Opera Australia a Ring that tells the story clearly and free of directorial clutter. That is a huge asset. However, the first cycle felt like a Ring-in-progress, a self-consciously unassuming, introspective staging, strong in narrative power, but struggling to find a coherent, expressive language of imagery and imagination to match Wagner’s sublime blend of music and metaphysics.

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