There was a time when Massenet’s Werther was pretty much repertory-fodder at Covent Garden. Between 1979 – when it had only its second performance in the house since the catastrophic premiere in 1894 – and 1987, the Royal Opera gave the work in four different (and differently cast) runs, which brought us the Werthers of Alfredo Kraus and José Carreras, and the Charlottes of Frederica von Stade and Agnes Baltsa, amongst others Thereafter, the opera vanished from the local, though not the international, repertoire until 2004, when the production revived this afternoon was first seen at the Royal Opera House, directed by Benoit Jacquot in designs by Charles Edwards. It had to wait almost seven years to reappear at Covent Garden, in which interim the staging – sniffily received by the London critics – had been given by the Opéra de Paris at the Bastille (with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role) and won every award going, though no-one there thought to mention that all they’d done was borrow it from Bow Street. The 2011 revival was, in many ways, the finest outing the piece had ever had here – Villazón, in best late voice, the very soul of tortured romanticism, and Sophie Koch – who had partnered Kaufmann in Paris – at her absolute peak as Charlotte. Then, as now (and indeed in 2004) the work was conducted by Antonio Pappano, who clearly keeps it for himself as a personal favourite.

WERTHER_THE ROYAL OPERA; ROH,

Werther; Vittorio Grigolo,
Charlotte; Joyce DiDonato,
Albert; David Bizic,
Sophie; Heather Engebretson,
Le Bailli; Jonathan Summers,
Johann; Yuriy Yurchuk,
Schmidt; François Piolino,
Bruhlmann; Rick Zwart, 
Kathchen; Emily

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The most obvious fil rouge connecting the several sections of this concert, belonging to the “extra festival” part of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, was its “Viennesity”. The Habsburg capital is synonym with waltz, which, before exploding in the second part of the program devoted to Strauss Jr. was already budding in the minuet of the third movement of the famous, monumental Symphony No. 96 in D major by F. J. Haydn, where absolute prominence is given to the oboe, which plays the obbligato in the Mozart aria “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” K. 418.  This aria was the artistic peak of the whole concert, thanks to Diana Damrau who, with this immaculate performance of an old favourites of her, managed to make the writer forget some of her recent questionable explorations of the nineteenth century Italian repertoire; Mozart gives her the opportunity to display what currently seems to be the sharpest arrow in her quiver: a formidable control of soft slow singing, “sul fiato”, hold together by a most pure legato carefully dosed, a product of a floating, unconstricted vocal production which kept – almost osmotically – the audience holding their breaths, thus unawarely imitating the singer and her mastery of breath control. Such untenable tension, to which the oboe – instrument of seduction par excellence – contributed by giving birth to a downright love duet with the soprano, suddenly broke when the adagio flowed into the allegro, like an abrupt return to reality, which Damrau interpreted with dramatic urgency, perfectly conveying the text “partite, correte, fuggite”; in the next phrase she was able to communicate Clorinda’s regret mixed to sarcasm, when she orders the Count to think about his beloved Emilia, and in the final più allegro she perfectly nailed the feared huge jump of two octave minus one minor third from B 3 to D 6. Within such a masterful performance one is easily inclined to close one eye on the slightly shrilly Es 6, which she did not quite manage to hit twice as the score prescribes, a fearsome passage that gave her no problems whatsoever a few years ago. The oboist Alberto Negroni had earlier been singled out for applause by Zubin Mehta for his contribution in the Haydn Symphony.

Concerto ZUBIN MEHTA / DIANA DAMRAU

Firenze, giugno 2016. Un momento del concerto all’Opera di Firenze con ZUBIN MEHTA ed il soprano DIANA DAMRAU insieme all’Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Florence, June 2016. A moment at the Opera di Firenze theatre during the concert with Zubin Mehta and the soprano Diana Damrau with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

“Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” had been preceded by “A Berenice…Sol nascente”, K. 70, composed by a pre-adolescent Mozart, an aria that Damrau performed with diligent professionalism, almost a warm-up to the glorious rendition of the K. 418 that was to come. The second part of the programme catapulted us to the “Austria Felix” of one century later, so that amidst such a triumph of waltzes, polkas and csárdás one had the the impression to be attending a New Year’s Eve concert. Zubin Mehta, who had previously chosen magically hypnotic tempos in the first part of K. 418, proved once more to have a natural affinity towards this repertoire, with an ebullient and vigorous approach, perfectly followed by the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino which – it never hurts to repeat it – is one of the best in Italy thanks to its cleanness, roundness and richness, as well as its capacity to express itself as a whole living organism.

Concerto ZUBIN MEHTA / DIANA DAMRAU

Firenze, giugno 2016. Un momento del concerto all’Opera di Firenze con ZUBIN MEHTA ed il soprano DIANA DAMRAU insieme all’Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Florence, June 2016. A moment at the Opera di Firenze theatre during the concert with Zubin Mehta and the soprano Diana Damrau with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Here Diana Damrau stood out particularly for her huge expressive communication, the ability to find the right gesture and gaze for each selection, for each word of the texts. Vocal technique is something that a singer can (or better, should) refine with rigorous schooling, but charisma is innate: either you have it or you don’t. Arias such as “Frühlingsstimmen” by Johan Strauß Jr, and the “Csárdás” from Die Fledermaus by the same composer suited her better in the first part of her career,  when her timbre was fresher and more crystal-like, and her top more insouciant (this time for instance she omitted the variations to the A flat 6 in “Frühlingsstimmen”). Let it be clear that this is a comparison between the Damrau of today and the one of the beginnings: this Florentine performance reached quality levels precluded to most of her colleagues in this repertoire.

Concerto ZUBIN MEHTA / DIANA DAMRAU

Firenze, giugno 2016. Un momento del concerto all’Opera di Firenze con ZUBIN MEHTA ed il soprano DIANA DAMRAU insieme all’Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Florence, June 2016. A moment at the Opera di Firenze theatre during the concert with Zubin Mehta and the soprano Diana Damrau with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

A curious “incident” took place when during the encores the soprano announced, using its Italian title, an aria from La vedova allegra (The Merry Widow), while the orchestra attacked “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta: no big deal, the composer was the same.  In conclusion, this was a high quality concert that conquered the audience for its vocal prowesses and festive atmosphere, dominated by a primadonna that donned three different extremely elegant “mise”: black and pearly grey in Mozart, aptly lily white in “Frühlingsstimmen” (Spring Voices), and flame red in the fiery “Hungarian” aria. At the end of the concert Zubin Mehta thanked the veteran cellist Fabiana Arrighini, as this performance marked her retirement. Everyone who is everyone was in attendance, joining a wildly enthusiastic audience packed to the rafters.

Nicola Lischi

Photo credit: Simone Donati – TerraProject – Contrasto

I try to keep abreast of Hansard but somehow I missed the successful Private Members’ Bill, no doubt championed by the Brexit cabal, which made it mandatory for all London productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to be played on sets which had either appalling sightlines or obstacle course challenges for the singers. English National Opera’s hotly anticipated new production breezed past the finishing line on both criteria, so at least it achieved something.

ENO

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For some time now Opera Holland Park has maintained a reputation for unearthing operas from the verismo period that, for most opera audiences, remain little more than footnotes in books or, if one is lucky, experienced through dusty old live recordings from Italian Radio or regional opera houses. Recent miraculous re-births have included Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna and Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. Wexford, following OHP’s cue, even dared to dust off Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff last summer. The same composer’s Iris is not quite at that height or depth of obscurity, as it has been recorded several times, including a studio recording with Tokody, Domingo and Giaotti and a live one with Dessi, Cura and Ghiaurov. Although the work has yet to re-establish any foothold in the major opera houses, even in Italy, this is the second production at Holland Park.

Iris -Pietro Mascagni - Opera Holland Park - 7 June 2016 Conductor - Stuart Stratford Director - Olivia Fuchs Designer - Soutra Gilmour Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan Movement Director - Namiko Gahier-Ogawa Choreographer - Charlotte Edmonds Chorus Mas

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Poor old Weber. Our wretched weather accelerated his death here from TB, aged 39, during his lengthy and ill-fated stay in London composing and premiering Oberon in 1826, since when he’s been poorly served by the very theatre he died working for, Covent Garden. None of his early pieces – Peter Schmoll, Silvana and Abu Hassan, amongst others – has ever been given there: and neither Euryanthe nor Oberon has been seen locally in nigh-on 200 years. Even his best-known – and certainly most stage-worthy – work, Der Freischütz, hasn’t been performed in Bow Street since 1989, when Götz Friedrich’s wonderfully detailed 1977 staging in Schneider-Siemssen’s exquisitely (and creepily) evocative sets was last seen (there’s a new one scheduled for December next year, though given that it’s in the hands of Kasper Holten and set, naturally, not in period but at the time of the work’s composition, I’m not holding out any hope on that front).

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This year’s Handel Festival at Göttingen lived up to its currently very high reputation, with no less than three stunning centrepiece Handel productions and the usual bevy of small scale but exciting concerts. Those three productions came like a hat trick, one night after the other, each as good as if not better than the other. First up was Susanna, a rarely performed but delightful Old Testament story oratorio, then the fully staged opera Imeneo and finally a concert performance of the also rarely performed opera Berenice.

Imeneo Matthew_Brook as  Argenio_William_Berger as Imeneo_ photo Theodoro_da_Silva.jpg

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What a bizarrely schizophrenic evening this was! On one side one could revel in a superb musical performance led by Kirill Petrenko featuring a strong, cohesive cast. On the other hand, that performance was constantly contradicted visually and emotionally by David Bösch’s grungy, determinedly anti-romantic production. The evening started strongly and throughout the first act the lithely iridescent musical performance seemed to go hand in hand with Bösch’s view of the piece. Each of the Masters was a sharply defined character – I particularly enjoyed the mildly rebellious master listening to music on headphones during the meeting! The carefully graded and varied reactions to Stolzing’s musical hand grenade all rang true without caricature. The final image of the act – a heartbroken Kothner clutching a shard from a shattered bust of Wagner was unexpectedly moving.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 12.26.32

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George Enescu’s only opera makes its much-delayed Covent Garden debut in a daring production from Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco. Enescu and his librettist, Edmond Fleg, take a narrative approach to the legend, from Oedipus’ birth right up to his death. Ollé and Carrasco break up that linearity by moving between eras from scene to scene, visiting classical Greece, the early 20th century and the modern day. It’s a daring approach, but it rarely distracts. The production is supported by excellent musical performances, from the orchestra, chorus and the large cast, all skilfully co-ordinated by conductor Leo Hussain. The result is a demanding, often harrowing, evening of opera, but one that makes an excellent case for this underrated work.

160520_0315 oedipe adj PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER CLIVE BARDA

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O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

Or,

Ah mi volge i suoi bei lumi!

The problem with experiencing Shakespeare in other idioms, other languages, for those with any familiarity with the original works, is the loss of the English poetry which it inevitably entails. While this is perhaps less pressing in for instance the history plays, it is a loss more deeply felt in the archetypical romantic drama of Romeo and Juliet. One hopes that it might be compensated by equally lyrical language, be it text or music, but this virtually lost work by Zingarelli bears little of the sensibility of the original. The above fragment seems to be the only line where Romeo actually describes his beloved; most of the time he is complaining about the injustice of it all. In terms of the plot, there is no balcony scene and no consummation of the intense feelings of the lovers, which makes the opera feel like it’s missing its core. This obscure opera does have its moments however, and was much helped by a riveting performance.

Giulietta e Romeo 14.5.2016Xavier Sabata, Franco Fagioli, Ann Hallenberg

Giulietta e Romeo 14.5.2016 Xavier Sabata, Franco Fagioli, Ann Hallenberg

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Anthony Minghella’s gorgeous Madam Butterfly for ENO is a favourite of London audiences, and it is not hard to see why. The stage is a sea of visual brilliancy from the first scene to the last, awash in Han Feng’s sumptuous costumes, Peter Mumford’s evocative lighting, Michael Levine’s ingeniously adaptable set design, and the graceful choreography of Carolyn Choa. It still looks ravishing even in its sixth revival; if anything, its colours seem more vibrant, its style more opulent than ever before. Sarah Tipple returns for the third time to direct the revival, and it moves with assurance and flair, the allure of Puccini’s Japan evoked with some of the most striking set pieces one is likely to view on any London stage.

Anthony Minghell's Madam Butterfly Returns to the English National Opera. London 14th May 2016

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