Opera

Apocalyptic minimalism: Carl Orff’s final opera, at Salzburg Festival, reviewed

‘Germany’s greatest artistic asset, its music, is in danger,’ warned The Spectator in June 1937. Reporting from the leading new-music festival in Darmstadt, the correspondent mentioned only one première of the two dozen on offer: ‘The most important achievement was the scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, a piece that would have been impossible without the influence of the “cultural Bolshevik” Stravinsky.’ He’s not wrong: give Stravinsky’s Les Noces some nail clippers and a face scrub and you get Orff. Carmina Burana can today seem irredeemably boorish and kitsch. But you can see how the piece’s hiccupy primitivism might have once startled. Still no less startling today is Orff’s

The joy of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor: BBCSO/Gabel, at the Proms, reviewed

In the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, a Broadway hoofer is forced to work at a community college, teaching classical music like some kind of square. He picks out a melody on the piano: ‘Whom was this written by?’ ‘By Caesar Frank!’ chorus the students. ‘Pronounce it Fronk,’ he corrects them; and the audience, presumably, laughed in recognition. This was 1936, and César Franck’s Symphony in D minor was a hugely popular concert hall warhorse. Now: not so much. According to the stats in the programme book for this BBC Prom, it was performed 36 times in 50 years at the Proms, before falling off a cliff in

An electrifying, immersive thrill: Scottish Opera’s Candide reviewed

The first part of the adventure was getting there. Out of the subway, past the tower blocks and under the motorway flyover. A quick glance at Google Maps and into a patch of litter-blown scrub. Someone bustles up alongside me: ‘Are you looking for the opera?’ I am, yes: and my guess is that the cluster of clipboard-y types in high-vis tabards next to that warehouse probably marks the entrance. We’re waved in: ‘Big Cock’ proclaims a graffiti-covered wall. There’s a stack of shipping containers, an improvised bar (cold beer and Scotch pies) and a big tented space filled with drifting crowds and that apprehensive, slightly unsettled murmur you always

A classic in the making: Glyndebourne’s Poulenc double bill reviewed

One morning in the 20th century, Thérèse wakes up next to her husband and announces that she’s a feminist. Hubby, who’s been in either of two world wars, just wants his bacon for breakfast. Too bad: declaring herself male, Thérèse has already detached her breasts and hurled them spinning into the middle-distance. But they keep hanging around, great pink wobbly orbs floating just above her head. She takes out a gun and blasts them to shreds. Renaming herself Tirésias, and with her husband trussed into a moob-enhancing corset, she sets out to run the world, leaving the men to work out how to make babies alone. Babies (we’ve been told

Convincing performances and unexpected sounds: Opera Holland Park’s Delius/Puccini double bill reviewed

Delius and Puccini: how’s that for an operatic odd couple? Delius, that most faded of British masters, now remembered largely as a purveyor of wistful aquarelles. And…well, and Puccini. Early, neglected Puccini, true, but this is Opera Holland Park, where they make it their mission to rescue the waifs and strays of Italian late romanticism, and see how they scrub up. Demonstrable dud by unfashionable Englishman vs youthful ambition from Italian opera’s ultimate marquee name. We all knew, in advance, how that was likely to play out. And we were all wrong. It turns out that both Puccini’s Le Villi (1884) and Delius’s Margot la Rouge (1902) were written for

A bleeding, inch-thick hunk of verismo sirloin: Royal Opera’s Cav and Pag reviewed

One legacy of lockdown in the classical music world has been the sheer length of the 21-22 season. In a typical year, most orchestras and urban opera companies would be winding down by mid-May. Not this time: after two years of postponements, and with lost income to recoup, seasons are stretching out like the finale of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Rumour maintains that audiences are being stretched too thinly, and although it’d be naive to infer anything fundamental from a smattering of vacant seats, it did feel surprising to see empty patches for the first night of the Royal Opera’s Cav and Pag. Absent Kaufmaniacs, disappointed by Jonas’s latest no-show? (He

Had the air of a Blue Peter Christmas special: Grange Festival’s The Yeomen of the Guard reviewed

The Yeomen of the Guard has been called the ‘English Meistersinger’ but the more you think about that, the dafter it gets. It’s not just the very obvious difference in scale and means between Wagner’s five-hour national epic and Gilbert and Sullivan’s sprightly opéra comique. Wagner’s whole drama builds to a collective affirmation of German art. The Yeomen begins by setting up a fantasy of an English golden age – the Tower of London in the 16th century – then systematically cuts it to ribbons. Act One’s gallant hero becomes Act Two’s callous seducer, whose march towards his own happy ending leaves a trail of collateral damage: a spiral of

A thoroughly enjoyable grand old heap of nothing: The Excursions of Mr Broucek reviewed

Sir David Pountney, it appears, has been to Prague. He’s booked himself a mini-break, he’s EasyJetted out, and after (one assumes) necking a couple of pints of unfiltered Pilsner, he’s splurged the entire design budget for Janacek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek on the loudest tourist tat that the Mala Strana has to offer. Scale it up, pile it on stage; job’s a good ’un. There’s a snow globe and a Lenin candle; there are dinky toy houses and a cardboard pop-up of the Charles Bridge. A massive souvenir plate (badly cracked) hangs over the stage, blazoned with a panorama of Hradcany Hill and the single word – at least

Letters: How to face death

Be prepared Sir: The advice of Jeremy Clarke’s Aunty Margaret that he ‘must “get right with the Lord” as a matter of the gravest urgency’ in the light of his cancer diagnosis is spot on. I say that not just because I’m a vicar, but because I have sat at innumerable bedsides of people in the last days of their lives and have often found myself thinking: ‘You really should have prepared for this a long time ago.’ But by then they were too sick, too tired or too drugged up to think straight about spiritual matters and I have always felt that I would be intruding if I forced

A completely satisfying operatic experience: Opera North’s Parsifal reviewed

When Parsifal finally returns to Montsalvat, it’s Good Friday. He’s trodden the path of suffering but now the sun is shining. Confused, he turns to the aged and broken Gurnemanz: why, on this day of utmost grief, does not the whole of nature mourn? Gurnemanz gestures at the woods and meadows, glowing, as Wagner tells us, in the morning light: ‘You see, it is not so.’ At this point in Opera North’s new concert staging, Parsifal (Toby Spence), Gurnemanz (Brindley Sherratt) and Kundry (Katarina Karneus) are sitting on the lip of the stage, as if having a quiet chat and – with a gentle relaxation of the shoulders, the smallest

The opera that wouldn’t die

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold completed his third opera, Die tote Stadt, in August 1920, he’d barely turned 23. Yet such was his reputation that what followed was practically a Europe-wide bidding war for rights to the première. The young composer had his pick of companies and conductors (the Vienna State Opera tried and failed). In the end – almost unprecedentedly – Die tote Stadt was launched on the same night in two cities simultaneously. Audiences in Hamburg and Cologne both erupted into applause, but Korngold, who could be in only one place, had chosen Hamburg – where he was so dazed by the response that Richard Strauss, who was present

Serves Ethel Smyth’s opera magnificently: Glyndebourne’s The Wreckers reviewed

You’ve got to hand it to Dame Ethel Smyth. Working in an era when to be a British composer implied an automatic cultural cringe towards the continent, she didn’t miss a beat when Henry Brewster, the librettist of her 1906 opera The Wreckers, chose to write in French. The incoming music director at Covent Garden was the Frenchman André Messager; perhaps, Smyth reasoned, ‘to compose this opera in French would be the best chance of a performance in England of an English opera!’ Good call: 116 years later, you get the distinct impression that the opportunity to première the unheard French version of the opera (it’s been done numerous times

Too affectionate, not enough cruelty: Don Pasquale, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed

There are many things to enjoy in the Royal Opera’s revival of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, but perhaps the most surprising is that the director plays it straight. This was my first encounter with Damiano Michieletto’s newish (2019) staging, and the plan was to approach it without preconceptions. (If we’re about to experience, say, a Bold Feminist Re-Imagining, I’d prefer to deduce it from the evidence on stage.) But for an opera premièred in 1843, Don Pasquale is distinctly old-school, with all its commedia dell’arte assumptions intact and whirring away like clockwork. The elderly miser Don Pasquale disinherits his lovelorn nephew and marries a compliant young bride who instantly becomes an

Why I booed Birtwistle

With the passing of Sir Harrison Birtwistle last month we are witness to a changing of the guard in new classical music. For 70-odd years contemporary music in the West was dominated by a highly exclusive atonal mode of thought that produced works that were hostile to the wider music-loving public and written for a small but highly subsidised cultural circle. If it was spontaneous when it began, the atonal idiom – meaning a highly dissonant style – quickly ossified into a kind of luxury backwater of music, so obscure it couldn’t even be questioned, yet endlessly backed by public subsidy which the public could nevertheless never challenge. It became

A fine cast, superbly conducted – just don’t overthink the production: Royal Opera’s Lohengrin reviewed

To be a Wagnerite is to enter the theatre in a state of paranoia. Mainstream culture has decided that Wagner was uniquely wicked; that’s just how it is, and it’s futile to retort that we seem comparatively relaxed about, say, Richard Strauss’s membership of the Reichsmusikkammer, or Stravinsky’s post-1945 anti-Semitism. Or that within recent memory Prokofiev’s October Cantata was presented in the UK as a bit of kitschy fun. (Never mind the dead kulaks: enjoy those accordions!) True, Wagner was an immeasurably greater artist, so he should be held to higher standards. No quarrel with that, at least not here and not now. But it does mean that in any

Pitch-black satire drenched in an atmosphere of compelling unease: ETO’s Golden Cockerel reviewed

Blame it on Serge Diaghilev. Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908 and never saw the première of his last opera, The Golden Cockerel. When the great showman finally presented it in Paris in 1914, it was as Le Coq d’Or: a spectacular opera-ballet hybrid, with colourful, folk-inspired designs by Natalia Goncharova that came to define the Ballets Russes in its imperial phase. That was the form in which it came to Britain, where the Evening Standard described it as a ‘farrago of love-making, black magic and ingenuous inconsequence’ before turning to the real news – the costumes. And that’s the basic impression – a fabulous but flimsy slice of Slavic exotica –

Comes so close to greatness but succumbs to prejudice: Royal Opera’s Peter Grimes reviewed

No question, the Royal Opera is on a roll. Just look at the cast list alone for Deborah Warner’s new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Allan Clayton sings Grimes, Bryn Terfel is Captain Balstrode, and John Tomlinson is Swallow, with Mark Elder conducting. Even before you get to a supporting cast that includes premium names such as James Gilchrist, Jennifer France and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, you’ve basically got the three pre-eminent British male singers of their respective generations, singing their boots off in the greatest of all British operas under the baton of the conductor who (it’s naive, but let’s dream) really ought to succeed Antonio Pappano when he leaves the

Spot-on in almost every way: Scottish Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream reviewed

Scottish Opera’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to open in midwinter. Snow falls, fairies hurl snowballs and the aurora borealis flickers and arcs across the darkened sky. Meanwhile Britten’s score swoons and sighs, its drowsy clouds of string tone wafting above gently snoring basses to create an atmosphere whose every glimmer evokes perfumed warmth. It should be a contradiction, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. Dominic Hill’s direction, Tom Piper’s designs and Lizzie Powell’s lighting (it’s hard to separate their contributions) create a visual world of opposites, illusions and inverted expectations; a setting for magic and misrule, which last time I checked is pretty

Astonishing, if unnecessary, grandstanding: Barbara Hannigan’s La voix humaine reviewed

I think it was when she leaned forward and balanced on one leg that Barbara Hannigan jumped the shark. It wasn’t just a question of physical agility, although that was impressive enough. Hannigan performed her on-the-spot acrobatics while singing; the results were projected on to a big screen by three remote-controlled cameras, which zoomed in on her eyes, merged blurry images of her face and occasionally froze, meaningfully, on a particularly arresting posture. She did all this at the same time as conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Poulenc’s one-woman opera La voix humaine, though that wasn’t really what this was about; at least, not by the time she was

Deserves to become an ENO staple: The Cunning Little Vixen reviewed

Spoiler alert. The last words in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen come from a child playing a frog. The story has come full circle — there was a frog near the start of Act One, and naturally you assume it’s the same one. But no: ‘That wasn’t me. That was my grandaddy. He used to tell me about you.’ It’s the final sad-sweet sting; the orchestra swells and the curtain falls. Perfection. Or so Janacek thought, anyway: ‘To end with the frog is impossible,’ insisted his German translator Max Brod — the same well-meaning meddler who either rescued or (according to taste) wrecked Kafka. Brod wanted a final hymn to