Alexandra Coghlan

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal

Mozart’s mischievous muse

If you were to compare Mozart to a bird it wouldn’t be the starling. Possibly the wood thrush or nightingale, with their beautiful, haunting songs; or maybe the lyrebird with its astonishing ear for imitation; or perhaps the composer would find his match in the exotic rarity of the ivory-billed woodpecker or giant ibis. But

Grimes triumphant

‘Peter Grimes!’ Ranked high above us in the Usher Hall — a mob smelling blood, hot for the kill — the chorus let forth those three primal cries, and we were all lost. The modesty-curtain of civilisation was torn away, and our basest human urges — hate, revenge, suspicion of difference, delight at weakness —

Time to end authenticity

They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I’m staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they’ve known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform

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,

Music matters | 1 June 2017

The ancient Greeks had a word for it —katabasis, descending into the depths, to the underworld itself, in search of answers. To cross the threshold between life and death, innocence and knowledge, the everyday and what lies beyond, is an act woven through art, resurfacing in each generation. For Orpheus, and for Monteverdi, the journey

Soaring and singing

Whether it’s Coleridge’s nightingale or Petrarch’s, Ted Hughes’s wren or Shelley’s skylark, Helen Macdonald’s hawk or Max Porter’s crow, literature is measured out in warbles and wingbeats — metaphors that have long since broken free of their originals, birds made not of sinew and bone but ‘ink and sentiment’. Richard Smyth’s A Sweet, Wild Note

Bingeing on Bach

Coined in 1944, ‘completism’ is a modern term for a modern-day obsession. What began as a phenomenon of possession — whether of comic books, records or stamps — has evolved in the age of Spotify, Netflix and cloud computing. No activity defines current cultural trends better than binge-watching, completism taken to its logical extreme: art

Passion indeed

‘The dripping blood our only drink/ The bloody flesh our only food…/ Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.’ In spite of that. Anglo-Catholic convert T.S. Eliot knew a thing or two about Easter. The Passion story might end with resurrection and redemption, but it’s a celebration that we achieve in spite

The lost Stradivarius

Min Kym is a violinist, but if you Google her name you won’t find sound-clips or concert reviews, touring schedules or YouTube videos. What you’ll get are news reports. Because one evening in 2010, when Kym was waiting for a train at Euston Station, her 300-year-old Stradivarius violin was stolen. Almost three years later it

Death becomes her

Opera is littered with the bodies of abandoned women. Step over Dido and Gilda, and you’ll still stumble into Donna Elvira, Euridice, Elisabeth, Ariadne, Alcina. The list goes on. Pop music might have ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, but opera has 500. Call it chauvinism or voyeurism if you like, but opera’s women are

Denial has rarely looked so good

Ceci n’est pas une Partenope. Forget the warring classical kingdoms of Naples and Cumae: this is surrealist Paris in the 1930s and imminent invasion is the stuff of conversational parenthesis, barely worth interrupting a rubber of bridge for, let alone an embrace. Man Ray, Lee Miller and their androgynous associates slink and affect their way

Thoroughly modern Monteverdi

‘Eppur si muove’ — And yet it moves. Galileo’s defiant insistence that the Earth revolves round the Sun, his refusal to submit to the Inquisition, is a familiar one. It’s the battle cry not of a reformer but of a revolutionary, a passionate teller of truths. It’s a credo he shared with composer Claudio Monteverdi.

Notes on a scandal | 2 February 2017

Kids: who’d have them? Certainly no one who has ever been to the opera. If they’re not murdering you, they’re betraying you, defying orders or throwing themselves into the arms of the nearest unsuitable suitor. What happens when that suitor is a god, or — god forbid — their own brother or sister? Answers came

The wartime origins of Carols from King’s

Christmas, for many people, began at exactly 3 p.m today, Christmas Eve. The moment when everything stops, frantic present-wrapping, mince-pie making and tree-decorating ceases and calm briefly takes hold. The reason? A single boy treble whose voice, clear and fragile as glass, pierces through the chaos with those familiar words: ‘Once in Royal David’s city/ Stood a

How a Christmas Eve ritual was conceived in the trenches

Christmas, for many people, begins at exactly 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It’s the moment when everything stops, frantic present-wrapping, mince-pie making and tree-decorating ceases and calm briefly takes hold. The reason? A single boy treble whose voice, clear and fragile as glass, pierces through the chaos with those familiar words: ‘Once in Royal David’s

Lessons from the front

Christmas, for many people, begins at exactly 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It’s the moment when everything stops, frantic present-wrapping, mince-pie making and tree-decorating ceases and calm briefly takes hold. The reason? A single boy treble whose voice, clear and fragile as glass, pierces through the chaos with those familiar words: ‘Once in Royal David’s

All’s well that ends well

The last ten minutes of any Don Giovanni tell you more about a director than the previous two hours. Mozart’s elastic ‘dramma giocoso’ can take a lot of pulling about, can be stretched taut into tragedy or squeezed into the tight confines of a farce, but whatever option (or combination of options) you choose, those

Buried treasure | 3 November 2016

Wexford is to opera-goers what casinos are to gamblers. The uncertainty, the hope, the exhilaration — they’re all a crucial part of a festival that annually rolls the dice, plucking three obscure, often all but unknown, operas from the repertoire and giving them a staging. Dealing the cards is David Agler, the artistic director whose

High and low

‘Besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from serious opera’. You can always rely on Charles Burney (the celebrated musicologist, who spent most of the 18th century being professionally underwhelmed) to find fault. But writing here about Handel’s Xerxes he has a