Susan bickley

The musical vaccination we all needed: ETO’s Cosi fan tutte reviewed

Anyone familiar with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s work will brace instinctively when the curtain goes up on his new Figaro. He’s the young British director who smeared the Young Vic with jelly and custard (The Changeling) and transformed it into a giant mud pit (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), covered the Almeida in blood and more mud (The Tragedy of King Richard the Second) and bathed his cast in a stomach-turning blend of salad cream, ketchup and baked beans at the Edinburgh Festival (Greek).So when the curtain rises on a white-walled corridor whose sterile purity is broken up only by four equally white doors you do mentally reach for a mop. But Hill-Gibbins’s

Janacek’s rare gem

Janacek’s upsetting opera Katya Kabanova, which hasn’t been seen in the UK for some time, turned up in two different productions over the weekend, with a third to follow in Scotland. The Opera North production by Tim Albery dates from 2007, when it was conducted by Richard Farnes with the clarity and passion which characterises all his work. This revival had Sian Edwards making her Opera North debut, and all told it had a slightly muted quality. The paradoxical jagged lyricism of Janacek’s orchestral writing only struck home intermittently, and there were stretches which could almost have been by Smetana, against whom Janacek partly defined himself. Albery’s production and Hildegard

Unclear Handeling

ENO has revived Richard Jones’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda. It was warmly greeted on its first outing in 2014, though Jones was, as he remains, inveterately controversial. The opera itself seems to command universal admiration among Handelians, and widespread approval among those of us who have never quite managed to call ourselves that. The most unequivocally positive response I’ve had to it was at Glyndebourne in 1998, where it was produced as if it were an early black-and-white film, and superbly conducted by William Christie. Viewing the DVD has confirmed my warm feelings about it. My chillier feelings about ENO’s in many ways excellent account are prompted, first, by Jones’s


Why set a supremely great play to music? The Winter’s Tale, the play of Shakespeare’s that I love most, has much of his most beautiful and intelligent poetry, as well as some of his most condensed and puzzling lines. Ryan Wigglesworth, in several of the innumerable interviews about his new opera, says he has been obsessed by the play for decades. So have I, but if I were a composer I think that would be a reason for leaving well alone. Wigglesworth has made his own libretto by using snippets of Shakespeare, enough to remind one of the original, but frustrating, most of the time, in producing a strip-cartoon version

A night at the circus

The Royal Opera’s latest production is Shostakovich’s The Nose and to paraphrase Mark Steyn, whatever else can be said about it, you certainly get a lot of noses for your money. Noses are tossed from character to character, noses kneel in prayer and noses stroll casually past in the background. They poke through curtains, mingle in crowds, and form a high-kicking, tap-dancing all-nose chorus line. At one point, a little tiny nose toddles unaided across the vast, almost-empty stage. Around them swirls bustling, multicoloured madness: bearded ladies and moustachioed cops, women dressed like dayglo matryoshka dolls, and a couple of pigtailed cartoon Chinamen who might have wandered in from an

The supremes

When I interviewed Richard Farnes in Leeds six years ago about Opera North’s project of performing the complete Ring, he struck me as the most modest conductor I had met or could imagine, with the possible exception of Reginald Goodall, who actually at a deep level wasn’t modest at all. Everything I had heard Farnes conduct had been on the highest level, but none of it had been Wagner. I wasn’t sceptical of his ability to do a complete Ring cycle, just bemused in a general way about the boundless ambition of the work and the unassertiveness of the man who would lead it. Year by year my highest hopes

Excess baggage

Near the end of Elena Langer’s new opera Figaro Gets a Divorce, as the Almaviva household — now emigrés in an unnamed 1930s police state — prepares to flee, the Countess announces that she intends to leave her trunk behind. It’s not the subtlest moment in David Pountney’s libretto. Any opera that sets itself up as a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro is already courting comparisons that are both completely unavoidable and massively unfair. When the production of Figaro is as good as this one, that baggage can become so heavy that it’s immovable. Welsh National Opera isn’t the first company to present The Barber of Seville and The

Lost in translation | 3 December 2015

About 15 minutes into act one of Jenufa, the student in the next seat leaned over to her companions and whispered, ‘They’re singing in English!’ And so they were, in Otakar Kraus and Edward Downes’s translation. Janacek was obsessed with the shapes and intonations of speech; for a non-Czech speaker, a first-rate singing translation is really the only way to make Jenufa strike home with anything like the immediacy and realism he intended. But even with surtitles, the effort is useless if — as was the case throughout much of act one of this performance by Opera North — the singers are almost inaudible. It might have sounded clearer in

Falling down

This week, some 200 years since Goya’s ‘The Disasters of War’, almost 80 years after Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, and over 50 since Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer for his photograph of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, the British media found itself questioning whether art should, or even could, ever represent the horrors of recent history. It was a conversation that picked minutely over the ethical responsibilities of an opera based on the events of 9/11 — was it too soon? how would the families feel? would it exploit tragedy for drama? — but one whose ceaseless moral whys and wherefores prevented it ever arriving at the only real artistic question: how? The

Opera North’s Götterdämerung is astounding (nearly)

It seems a very short time since I interviewed Richard Farnes about Opera North’s planned Ring cycle, the dramas to be done one a year, semi-staged in an idiosyncratic way. In fact, it is four years, and now the complete cycle has been performed to universal acclaim, with the loudest cheers going to the conducting and the stupendous playing by the orchestra of Opera North, with some reinforcements — all six harps, and so on. Farnes explained to me in the interview that he was studying the Ring, with which he had previously had no professional connection. I jumped up and down with envy and excitement, but it was clear