Not pleasant, and not in tune, but unarguably compelling: Royal Opera’s Nabucco reviewed

Nabucco, said Giuseppe Verdi, ‘was born under a lucky star’. It was both his last throw of the dice and his first undisputed hit, composed after the failure of Un giorno di regno and the death of his young wife and two children had driven him to abandon music outright. The story (at least, as Verdi told it) was that the director of La Scala had forced him to accept a libretto on the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, and that when a page fell open on the chorus ‘Va, pensiero’ the muse returned. Citation needed, possibly, but there’s no question that the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ is one of

The central performances are tremendous: Glyndebourne’s Luisa Miller, reviewed

Opera buffs enjoy their jargon. We all do it, scattering words like ‘spinto’ and ‘Fach’ like an enthusiastic pizza waiter with an outsize peppermill. It’s principally a means of signalling that you’re part of the club. But occasionally it’s genuinely useful, and Glyndebourne’s new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller had me thinking about the concept of ‘tinta musicale’, a term used to describe Verdi’s sense that each of his operas should have its own distinctive sonic colour. The late-summer warmth that suffuses Falstaff, for example, or the maritime translucence of Simon Boccanegra. Or take La traviata: the enervated violins of the prelude, the hectic brilliance once the curtain rises. Already,

Why imperfect operas like Don Carlo are more interesting than perfect ones

In the 62 years since I first heard and saw Don Carlo, in the famous and long-lasting production by Visconti at the Royal Opera, my feelings about it have grown ever stronger, both in passionate attachment and in critique. Imperfect operas, like other imperfect phenomena, can be more interesting than perfect ones, because they’re more thought-provoking, more enticing. The libretto, very freely based on Schiller’s play, was by two Frenchmen, and Verdi, eager to make a bigger splash than he had so far in Paris, made too much of one. The first performance, in 1867, ran so late that the members who lived outside central Paris missed their last trains,

Real Housewives of Windsor

‘Tutto nel mondo e burla’ sings the company at the end of Verdi’s Falstaff — ‘All the world’s a joke’ — and how much you enjoy this opera probably depends upon how far you accept that truth. The 79-year-old Verdi coming out of retirement for one last laugh, finding in Arrigo Boito a librettist who could remake Shakespeare in the sun-kissed Italian of Boccaccio and Petrarch, and then composing a score that saves its deepest compassion for old fools and young lovers, its sweetness (according to Boito) ‘sprinkled across the comedy as one sprinkles sugar on a tart’: seriously, what right-thinking opera-lover, experiencing all of that, wouldn’t want to clink

The Berlioz problem

Hector Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803 in rural Isère. ‘During the months which preceded my birth my mother never dreamed, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a laurel branch,’ he writes in his Memoirs. ‘This is extraordinary, I agree, but it is true… Can it be that our age is lacking in poetry?’ And so on, for nearly 600 candid, facetious, outspoken pages. Berlioz’s Memoirs are the inner voice of the Romantic generation as you’ve always imagined it, and everyone who’s interested in music in the 19th century — no, scrub that, everyone who’s interested in European culture — should read them. As a

The lady vanquishes

At last, a great time at the Royal Opera: a magnificent performance, in every way, of Verdi’s Macbeth, curiously but pleasantly beginning at 3 p.m. This is the fourth outing of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production, and the finest by a long way, though each of the previous series had its merits. If my memory serves me rightly, and it very likely doesn’t, Daniel Dooner, the revival director, has made significant changes to the production. What previously struck me as tolerable seemed, in this revival, thoughtful, imaginative and genuinely helpful to the drama, qualities that I had given up hope of experiencing in a major opera house. Oddly, that meant that

It’s the music, stupid

‘Welcome to our hearts again, Iolanthe!’ sings the fairy chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan’s fantasy-satire, and during this exuberant new production by Cal McCrystal you could almost hear the assembled G&S fans sighing in agreement. Iolanthe is our trump card against the sceptics, and not merely because Gilbert’s digs at parliamentary politics are still so startlingly acute. No, we insist, it’s the music, stupid: just listen to it! Sullivan’s score gleefully assimilates Handel, Mendelssohn and Wagner (Tannhäuser, Rheingold; even Tristan und Isolde), and to fly that close to the magic flame of Bayreuth without getting frazzled is something that very few composers have achieved with such freshness and melodic grace.

Accentuate the negative

A chaste act of adultery and a silent conversation: these are the encounters at the heart of Un ballo in maschera. On paper Verdi’s opera is a hot-blooded political thriller climaxing in a regicide, but in the watching it’s something entirely other. Just like the buoyant score, whose ‘aura of gaiety’ seems so at odds with the dark subject matter, the drama of Ballo is a sustained act of misdirection. The focus in this unusual piece is not on action and event but on absences, unspokens — the negative and not the photograph is what absorbs Verdi so compellingly here. When the Italian censors, troubled by the on-stage assassination of

Ave, Maria

Anyone who thinks that an artist’s life is irrelevant to their artistic achievement, and for that matter anyone who thinks that it isn’t, must be given pause by Maria Callas. It is now exactly 40 years since her death and everything she recorded is available on multiple pressings. But of the huge body of material that has appeared about her, only a small percentage concerns itself with the recordings. There are innumerable biographies, memoirs, refutations of memoirs, studies of the influence of her fluctuating erotic life on her singing, her meteoric rise, the Great Decade, the tragic decline, and so on. All of these might be fascinating, but they draw

The morality of conducting

Now he is the greatest figure for me, in the world. [Toscanini is] the last proud, noble, unbending representative (with Salvemini) of the Risorgimento & 19th-century ideals of human liberty… not just a great conductor but a symbol of discipline and spontaneity in one — the most morally dignified & inspiring hero of our time — more than Einstein, (to me) more than even the superhuman Winston [Churchill]. That is Isaiah Berlin writing in 1952, two years before his hero’s last concert, and as quoted by Harvey Sachs in this magnificent biography. Though Berlin’s encomium is extreme, it isn’t unrepresentative of the kind of things that were being written about

Risk assessment

Someone at the Buxton International Festival had a wry smile on their face when programming this year’s trio of operas. To sandwich together Verdi’s Macbeth and Mozart’s Lucio Silla — charged tales of political tyranny, both — with Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a juxtaposition as canny as it is risky. Dictatorship takes many forms, it says, and whether your choices are prescribed, your desires proscribed, by a Roman dictator or by the tweed-bosomed ‘self-appointed chief constable’ of a small Suffolk village makes little difference. But comedy is the drawing pin to the balloon of tragedy, bathos beats pathos nearly every time, and while Britten’s exquisite satire on parochial politics

Roll over Beethoven

If you want to see an opera director kicking a genius when they’re down — and I mean really sticking the knife in and giving it a good old twist around — Fidelio is usually a safe bet. It’s one of Beethoven’s few undisputed masterpieces in which he’s not in absolute command of his medium; instead, the sheer moral and emotional conviction of the music carries it through. Confronted with such blazing sincerity, the instinct (possibly defensive) of many modern directors seems to be to subvert, to undercut, to belittle. I haven’t seen a production of Fidelio this century that’s been content simply to help the work speak (and Fidelio

Art of darkness | 15 June 2017

Brett Dean’s new opera for Glyndebourne is a big-hearted romantic comedy, sunny and life-affirming. Only joking — this is contemporary opera, after all. It’s about the usual stuff: neurosis, violence and toxic sexuality. Those seem to be the emotions most naturally suited to the language of mainstream contemporary classical music, and Dean speaks that language as brilliantly as Richard Strauss handled the idiom of an earlier generation. Whatever else this operatic adaptation of Hamlet might be, it’s a polished piece of work. That takes some doing: Shakespeare isn’t naturally suited to the opera house. It was Verdi’s librettist Boito who first realised that the best way to retain the essence

False start

When a composer begins an opera, they create a world. You don’t need a full-scale overture: the tear-stained violins that Verdi drapes over the opening bars of La traviata do the job perfectly. The orgasmic upswing that launches Der Rosenkavalier, the cosmic hum that sets the Ring on its course — those very first notes tell you exactly where you are and what’s at stake. Puccini gets it just right at the start of La bohème: a cheerful orchestral clap on the shoulders that shoves you straight into the boisterous, bantering world of these four incurable optimists. Not here. André Barbe & Renaud Doucet’s new production for Scottish Opera opens

Why do the British have such terrible taste in voices?

When it comes to voices, the words of the apocryphal Times headline come to mind: ‘Fog in the Channel; Continent cut off’. It’s one sign of the deep cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which maybe made Brexit inevitable. You might not think a taste in voices would have any connection with this cultural divide. But for me, an Italian-born and trained soprano, who speaks opera’s mother tongue, it seems blindingly obvious. It strikes me that Brits in general have very different ideas of what an operatic voice should sound like, compared to the Italians, Spanish, French, Germans and also, interestingly enough, the Americans. My American fellow students at the Royal College

Callas would have found it a very big bore: Met Opera Live’s Nabucco reviewed

Nabucco Met Opera Live Callas, writing to her husband Meneghini from Naples in 1949, where she was performing a run of Verdi’s Nabucco for the only time in her life, said ‘the opera itself has beautiful music, but it’s also a big bore!’ That seems just, but it goes on being done fairly often, mainly on the strength of the chorus ‘Va, pensiero’, Italy’s unofficial national anthem, and of Abigaille’s Act III aria and the meaty part for the title character, who is provided with one of the relatively few baritone mad scenes, and ends up as a convert to the Hebrew god. The plot is rather complicated, considering there are

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

Losing heart | 29 September 2016

The subtitle for Mozart’s Così fan tutte may be ‘The School For Lovers’, but it’s as a school for directors that the opera is most instructive. From four lovers and two different romantic pairings, the composer spins a parable whose moral is as elusive as its morals. Faced with so much ambiguity (and so little political correctness) directors tend either to sand down the rough edges with laughs, or fling a capacious concept over the whole lot. It says something about the awkward profundity of this most inscrutable and affection-resistant of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations that it can take it. It says even more that you so rarely see an

Dorset’s winning formula

Dorset Opera seems to receive far less coverage than the rest of the country-house summer shows, although it is in most respects well up to the standard of any of them except Glyndebourne, which is in a category, social and artistic, of its own. The Dorset productions take place in the Coade Theatre of Bryanston School, and are the result of a brief but what must be an incredibly intense period of preparation, with some big names in the major roles, and the smaller parts and chorus taken by a large collection of young singers who are strenuously trained for the week-long rehearsals. I like going on the last day,

Where should this music be?

This must rank as the most heartbreaking example of premature chicken-counting in musical history. ‘Gotter has made a marvellous free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,’ wrote poet Gottfried Bürger to the translator A.W. Schlegel on 31 October 1791. ‘Mozart is composing the piece.’ Three days later, brimming with misplaced confidence, the dramatist Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter confirmed that ‘the edifice is all ready to receive Mozart’s heavenly choruses’. By 5 December 1791, Mozart was dead. Most probably, he never saw Gotter’s Tempest adaptation, although the musicologist Alfred Einstein stirred the pot of Mozartian myth by presuming that the master had set to work on it during his dying days. So the