Tag Archives: Opera Holland Park

2017, my musical year in review

31 Dec

2017 reviewThe last time I wrote a blog post, Donald Trump had just become President of the USA, which pretty much prefigured the chaos and confusion of the last twelve months. But being on the door step of a possible nuclear obliteration is a good time to look back to all the joyful artistic experiences that made it from bearable to outright gorgeous.  Since I lazily put together a short list of favourites from the last twelve months in response to Fiona Maddocks’ review, thought I’d publish them here with a few additions. In many ways it has been a remarkable year and have been very lucky to have been to so many stimulating performances.

The programming of the Royal Opera left quite a lot to be desired for half of the year which brought down the number of performances attended considerably. Also managed to be at Semiramide on the night that Joyce DiDonato was unwell, which made it a rather staid evening. Sadly with the crazy prices I didn’t manage to see it another time. 

Also promised myself not to darken the doorstep on ENO until the utterly useless leadership steps down, I’m getting my wish next year so will be keeping an eye their way and hopefully see them make progress and who knows maybe one day they will manage to perform a bit more frequently as the current status quo is a long term road to oblivion.

The smaller companies made quite an impact, Welsh National Opera was programming a lot of crowd-pleasers aside to more esoteric repertoire showing David Pountney’s capability in keeping a company in the black but also making sure it offers something for the neophyte but also adventure to the seasoned punter.

Scottish Opera seem to be out of the woods artistically after a couple of challenging years. The two performances I attended were absolutely gripping, the appointment of Stuart Stratford is clearly making a difference. 

Grange Park semi-built a new opera house in the enchanted surroundings of a 17th century manor house, even if the dreadful Joanna Lumley was needed to cajole more money for their new toilets. Based on the description by Wasfi Kani I’m expecting a miniature Roman Coliseum with urinals.

Over at Glyndebourne I managed to compress my three customary visits to a long weekend but was rewarded by some exceptional performances that even made me ignore the absolutely pointless staging of Ariadne auf Naxos that despite prior announcements, not many changes happened and we ended up with the most glorious singing in the service of a production that is both obvious and totally missing the dramatic arc of Strauss’ masterpiece.

Holland Park Opera put another strong season with very well cast younger singers making their stage bubble with enthusiasm. 

•Le Grand Macabre with the LSO and Rattle in January was a fantastic way to blow away the cobwebs with Simon Rattle conducting a blistering account of this demanding score with a London Symphony Orchestra rewarding him with pinpoint accuracy and crystalline clarity. 

Bryan Hymel’s blistering Turiddu and Canio on the opening night of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden. When I saw him two weeks later he was even better!

•Elīna Garanča‘s very intense and in many ways against the grain Santuzza was a revelation in Cavalleria Rusticana who added much needed nuance to this fantastic production.

Lisette Oropesa’s turn as Lucia bettered what can be done with Katie Mitchell’s production bringing clarity and vocal prowess. Her Lucia was young, but deep, and as far removed from pointless vocal pyrotechnics and “identikit madness” acting as possible. 

The spectacular young cast including Natalya Romaniw, Jason Bridges and Nicholas Lester for Welsh National Opera’s Onegin was a joy, bringing back that most important ingredient of Tchaikovsky’s immense achievement, youth, to the foreground. 

Lise Davidsen’s dark hued Ariadne at Glyndebourne was definitely a confirmation of great promise and an unforgettable evening. Her magical performance made us forget about the truly pointless production which deserves to be shelved without trace. 

The unbrittled orientalism with a side of contemporary criticism for Cavalli’s Hipermestra at Glyndebourne made the unfamiliar accessible and gave a great vehicle for with many young singers, including Emőke Baráth, Benjamin Hulett, Anthony Gregory and David Webb making their mark.

The luxurious Magda of Elizabeth Llewellyn at Opera Holland Park’s La Rondine was balm for the soul on a warm summer’s evening. A tremendous singer that gives insightful readings of roles wrapped up with her sparkling personality.  

The brutal Jenůfa at Grange Park was a great achievement, a true psychological thriller from start to finish. The intensity of Natalya Romaniw and the set chewing vim of Susan Bullock made this a true highlight of the year.

Another Holland Park triumph for the great singing actress Anne Sophie Duprels in Zazà. She is truly the house diva and she delivers in spades every time. Have never walked away from one of her shows less than shaken. Make sure you catch her when she returns in Mascagni’s Isabeau

Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne was blessed with an amazing cast including Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly and Barbara Hannigan. I was not quite as enamoured with the ridiculous writing for the Counter-tenors but the overall effect was one of a major new work that would benefit from some small revisions to make it dramatically even tighter.

•Joyce DiDonato’s intimate concert at the Wigmore Hall with the Brentano Quartet was a suitably magical end to the year. A programme that included Strauss and Debussy was crowned by Jake Heggie’s song cycle based on the life story of sculptor Camille Claudel written for her in 2012. It was musical communication of the highest order, every breath mattered and it added meaning to every word. Have a listen to the two encores I recorded on the night to have an idea of the level of engagement and togetherness of audience and performer. 


Thanks for reading and I will wish you all a tremendous year ahead, even if we have to make even more concerted effort to make it so.


Dull fabulosity / Madama Butterfly / Opera Holland Park – 29 June 2013

3 Jul

OHP ButterflyThe prospect of sitting through a performance of Butterfly is not something I tend to anticipate with relish. Returning to it after a near five year hiatus it proved to me that it is a score I cannot stand. Full of rather out of date ideas of “the orient” and with paper thin characters that do not excite me very much. It would be foolish not to acknowledge Puccini’s skill into interweaving melodies throughout the score in a very sophisticated manner, for instance the crescendo of the love duet from Act One gets recalled many times while Butterfly reminisces while everyone around her do not believe that Pinkerton will return.  But my main objection about the work as a whole is the obvious, blatant emotional manipulation he attempts, the crude black and white world of good and evil, Butterfly vs Pinkerton.

For an opera of the verismo persuasion it is lacking the very fundamental trait, of having a more realistic outlook. The opposite ends of morality collide in the most simplistic manner. Are we to believe that she is an innocent victim to the predatory hands of an American? It all just feels sordid and unsophisticated. A story that is underlined by a misogynistic, patriarchal culture clash fails to create ripples of excitement.

This production is also very static and with the least interesting set I have seen in a while. A long winding promenade lined with semi transparent fabric replicating the aesthetic of a traditional Japanese house and with only one set of doors in the centre (which curiously, when closed, locked into a popped up position attracting unwanted attention and adding a bit of unintended hilarity) didn’t quite help set the stage for the tragic story. This opera gives the possibility to explore the indoor/outdoor connection and to take advantage more of transparency as a story telling tool. But here the set was stolid and passive and while the body movement side of the personenregie was an interesting aspect (by Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) but the direction overall seemed lost and indistinct.
Some may interpret it as a production that doesn’t meddle with Puccini’s drama but to me it just seemed to under-sell it due to the lack of spectacle. The costuming was equally dull, redolent with the usual east/west clichés. Pinkerton in navy uniform and profusion of gold buttons, Butterfly and Suzuki in wigs looking as soft as crude stone carvings and kimonos. Also the make up let Yamadori down, his baldness looking shiny and latex laden in contrast to the clear naturalistic streak through the show.
The iconic use of the American flag, brought on stage by Pinkerton in Act One to cover his case of bourbon, later becoming the symbol of his absence as she places it on his empty arts and crafts chair. In the devastating finale she tears a piece of it and covers her son’s eyes as he sits on his father’s chair his back turned to his mother committing Jigai. A very powerful last tableaux that made it obvious what Durpels can do if given a convincing situation to act out.

The singing was of very high standard. Particularly Anne Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr had a wonderful stage chemistry each sang with deep conviction and emotional sincerity. Cannot think of a more suited voice for Butterfly than our leading lady, she has a timbre made for Puccini with a gorgeous plush sound accompanied by a clipped sharpness that enunciates every word to its best advantage her Che tua madre dovrà was chilling with a fine balance between dignity and deep desperation. Many singers will go on a barrage of histrionics erring on the side of vulgarity but Duprels was perfectly judged and made the night into a most memorable one. Shame that Joseph Wolverton despite his beautifully bright timbre, the delivery in his upper register was a bit pinched and his acting a little too plain, in total contrast to Duprels. We were not shown much behind the arrogant, unsophisticated façade. But the casting of a more mature Pinkerton made him more of the revolting sex tourist Illica and Giacosa are describing and insinuating in the libretto.

The Sharpless of David Stephenson was strongly voiced even though he gave more the impression of an English baritone trying too hard to sound more Italianate. Sometimes pushing too hard and sounding blustery. But his involvement with the character at an emotional level was evident. Looking forward to seeing him sing Macbeth for Scottish Opera next March, can imagine him a much better match for Verdi’s denser writing.

The supporting roles were performed to a high standard, with the standouts being the pantomime pimp of a Goro by Robert Burt and the alluringly voiced and apologetically distant Kate Pinkerton of  Chloe Hinton. Manlio Benzi’s conducting was swift and forceful moving along the action to its crushing conclusion.

But the evening had one towering performance, that one of Duprels. Who despite my misgivings on Puccini’s musical language and subject matter gave a stunningly believable Cio-Cio San, lithe in body, economical in gestures and overall movement but with luscious vocal supplies that lifted this production to a much higher level. Her good taste and decorum made a character that is pathetic as it is loving and betrayed. Selfish in her lack of acceptance of change and yet shame claiming her life. A level of complexity that interweave drama, poetry and music to a seductive mix, only possible through the alchemic power of opera.

Some tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

OHP Butterfly List

Onegin in the park / Yevgeny Onegin / Opera Holland Park – 17 July 2012

21 Jul

This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.

The production directed by Daniel Slater has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of the directing to start emerging.

The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of warmth and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the subtle and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness.  A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is exactly at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three.  Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element, Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short flippant conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the telling look she gave Leese.

After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise  stark palette. The dance takes place and gradual inflammation of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.

One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.

The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with choristers dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.

Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.

Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.

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