Category Archives: opera

Joyce DiDonato with il pomo d'oro at the Händel Festspiele


Händel Festspiele Halle 2018,  26 May, 2018 Georg-Friedrich Händel Halle

Correct me if I am wrong, but surely the Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is our generation’s biggest opera diva. On top of that a prima donna who doesn’t put on any airs. The opposite is true. She gives a lot of time to good causes and is genuinely interested in working with young singers. She also believes that “Art is a valiant path to peace”. But I struggle to conceal my cynicism when the audience is handed a Hallmark invitation card  at the entrance of the concert hall in Halle with a personal greeting from DiDonato. It contains  a few thoughts about discord and harmony and the belief that art unifies.  And then she poses a question which she hopes that we find time to answer and post in the box provided for that purpose : “…in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?’ I have to confess that I didn’t fill in an answer. I let DiDonato’s singing do the talking.

On her whirlwind tour to two cities in the former East Germany DiDonato also found time to pick up a couple of awards. Halle is Handel’s birthplace and DiDonato, who is the composer’s foremost interpreter in the US, was given the town’s prestigious Händel-Preis. This price doesn’t include a remuneration, it is simply a mark of distinction. Two days later DiDonato appeared in Dresden (which lies 130 km further east), where another splendid music festival is taking place simultaneously as the Handel festival . The Glashütte Original MusikFestspielPreis (offered by a local watchmaker) does come with a decent sum of money, € 25,000. DiDonato decided to donate the prize money to El Sistema Greece, an organisation that provides regular music education for children who live in refugee camps in Hellas (Greece).

Yes, proof, if needed, that DiDonato is not only an internationally acclaimed opera star, but also has plenty of heart.

DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden

The modern Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle in Halle rarely gets used during the festival (see also my previous blog from the festival). Its capacity is greater than the audience numbers that most of the Händel festival concerts and performances attract. Joyce DiDonato and Il pomo d’oro have no problem filling the large concert and congress hall. People fly from all over the world to see DiDonato perform.

When the audience enters the auditorium the artist is already on stage, albeit in the shadows upstage left and therefore many audience members don’t spot her straight away. She is dressed in clobber designed by Vivienne Westwood but not as heavily made up as she is on the cover of the CD ‘In War and Peace, harmony through music’(2016). Clearly visible in the foreground, and naked from the waist up, sits a dancer on the floor, face down. A low hum can be heard through the sound system. This sets the serious and solemn mood of the concert. Unfortunately the audience starts to clap when the orchestra enters and that upsets the momentum temporarily. DiDonato has together with the film director Ralf Pleger created a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in which voice, music, dance, costumes and lighting design are meant to come together. I have my doubts about the necessity of this concept. If DiDonato was a lesser singer I would perhaps welcome this approach, but I ‘d rather concentrate on her voice and watch the excellent orchestra than be distracted by a lone dancer and the occasional flickering lighting effects.

The recording of ‘In War and Peace’ features even (out of fifteen arias)  by Handel. In this concert she presented in total nine arias and a song (by Richard Strauss and not featured on the album). Six were composed by Handel.

The first half of the concert concentrated on five different heroines who are embroiled in deadly conflicts. The arias all deal in one way or another with war.

In the opening DiDonato flung herself into ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ aria from Handel’s oratorio Jephtha. The audience luckily cottoned on pretty quickly to the fact that they were not meant to clap after every song. There was a superb , slowly intensifying rendition of Henry Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’. The mezzo-soprano turned this lament a few years ago into a tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice when she performed it in The Stonewall Inn, the famous gay bar in Greenwich Village.

Sitting on the stage she finished the first half of the concert with a very fine, pianissimo and lentissimo rendition of ‘Lascia, ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte’ (from the opera Rinaldo).

DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden

Throughout the concert Il pomo d’oro performed a number of instrumentals to allow DiDonato’s voice some rest in between arias. This was an opportunity for the orchestra (and the dancer) to shine. Il pomo d’oro play on period instruments and they mainly specialise in opera. Emilio de Cavalieri considered that his work Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo (1600) was the very first opera and that was reason enough for the ensemble to give us the sinfonia from that work.

The young Russian Maxim Emelyanychev, who next year will become the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal conductor, put Il pomo d’oro through its paces. Maxim conducts with gusto, occasionally jumping up from his harpsichord to stress a bar, a note here and there.. He also turned out to be very adept at playing the cornetto. An even bigger surprise came in the second half when Anna Fusek, one of the second violinists, got up from her seat to join DiDonato downstage. Fusek proceeded to play the tricky soprano flute solo in Handel’s charming aria Augelletti (Little birds, you who sing, Little zephyrs, you who breathe) from Rinaldo!

Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden
Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden

in the second half of the concert DiDonato returns barfoot. The second half is supposedly devoted to peace, but Purcell’s ‘They tell us that you mighty powers above’ (from The Indian Queen) is sung by the Inca Princess Orazia while she is waiting to be put to death together with her lover, the Aztec Montezuma. DiDonato and the orchestra perform this piece at speed as if there is no time to lose for contemplation. It is rather odd that on her album this aria is featured in the War section. There is more Handel with the virtuous Susanna bathing naked in ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’ (from the oratorio Susanna). But this peaceful scene will after this aria be disturbed when the two dirty old men, that have perved on her, reveal themselves and demand sex.

DiDonato’s encore is Handel’s well-known Dopo Notte which is not included on the War and Peace album. But after a concert with much darkness and turmoil it is wholly appropriate to end on a positive note. because indeed: Dopo notte, attra e funesta, splende in ciel piu vago il sole (After night, dark and mournful, the sun shines more radiantly).

Svitlana Slyvia (Selene), Filippo Mineccia (Demetrio) get ready to share a selfie with the Halle audience.


The Handel festival has taken place on an annual basis in the composer’s birthplace Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, since 1952. This year’s premiere of the original Italian version of the opera Berenice means that all of Georg Friedrich Händel’s 42 operas have been staged in Halle, which is a feat that no other city can boast (according to the festival organisers). This Handel festival (there are two others in Germany)  features many local productions, but this year some of the baroque genre’s most celebrated singers are visiting Halle : Joyce DiDonato, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann and Max Emanuel Cencic are among the solo performers.

An anti-German clique, absurdly with the support of the Prince of Wales (an Hanoverian!), started the Opera of the Nobility company in London. Händel’s company, the Royal Academy of Music, couldn’t compete with the star-studded casts that the upstarts presented. This caused Handel a lot of stress and a month before the premiere of Berenice, Regina d’Egitto in 1737 the composer suffered a mild stroke or possibly even a heart attack. This meant that he neither conducted or attended the premiere of the new work. It is often reported that the opera was a failure with the public but there is no actual evidence of that. But it is a fact that the work until recently was rarely performed and was dismissed by most experts. The minuet from the overture continued to be popular in versions for different instruments.  eleven years later Handel included the sinfonia from the third act in the overture to the famous Music for the Royal Fireworks.

 Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it
Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it © Anna Kolata

The subject of this opera seria in three acts is the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra Berenice III. The libretto is only very vaguely based on historical facts. Rome, which rules over Egypt, wants Berenice for political reasons to marry her stepson Alessandro, who has actually fallen in love with her. The queen on the other hand loves Demetrio, but he is already romantically involved with her sister Selene. And to complicate it all there is the Egyptian prince Arsace who is in love with Selene. What ensues is a classic tale of thwarted romances and erotic encounters.

Berenice doesn’t display the musical fireworks that you can find in some other Händel operas and by his standards it is a fairly restrained piece. In that sense this  exuberant staging at the Halle Opera seems to suggests the opposite.

The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie
The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie © Anna Kolata

Director Jochen Biganzoli sets the action firmly in today’s self(ie)-obsessed world. One can see parallels with vainglorious circles during the Baroque period, but this production at times works a little bit too hard at dragging the plot into modern times. The costumes are a mixture of contemporary and historic but the set is modern. Handel’s operas and oratorio have a tendency of becoming rather static and this is where the revolving stage comes to  good use, particularly when it turns fast like a carousel with the characters chasing after each other through adjacent rooms. But the backdrop, which projects a mixture of various news media updates and messages sent in various forms between the characters, is in the long run a terribly distracting concept. It works for half an hour and then it gets tedious. Biganzoli charges the piece with narcissist and voyeuristic aspects and he is right in stressing sex as a political weapon

If you want to stay with the spirit of this opera it is closer to the Age of Enlightenment than our modern media age. But Biganzoli’s argument for a total visual overhaul of the plot is, all told, pretty successful.

With the risk of sounding patronising I was surprised by the high standard of some of the Halle Opera ensemble’s own singers. The soprano Romelia Lichtenstein might be slightly too old for the role of  queen Berenice but her voice shows no signs of aging. She was splendidly furious in the Traditore, traditore aria and effortlessly nailed the bravura aria Chi t’intende which ends up as a duet between queen and the oboe. It was the production’s highlight and most tender moment when Romelia, dangling her legs in the orchestra pit, sat next to the standing (and rather brilliant) oboist. It all ended comically with the pair sharing a selfie.

Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers
Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers do their thing. © Anna Kolata

Berenice’s sister Selene is turned into a comical character with a strong sex drive. The Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Svitlana Slyvia handles all that is thrown at her by the director with aplomb (including the heavily tattooed look) and it could easily have become a 3D printout of a cutout cardboard, but Slyvia manages to give the role plenty of depth. This in-house production features a number of guest stars. Demetrio is the most multi-facetted male character: he plots against Berenice, together with her younger sister Selene, while at the same time pretending to be the queen’s lover. The Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia portrays the  jealousy and lust for vengeance in the Su Megera, tesifone, aletto! aria very well. Demetrio’s Si, tra i ceppi aria is easily the opera’s most recognisable and here Mineccia didn’t let us down either. His rather ridiculous cool-lover-man act was greatly helped by his silly Kenny G perm wig.

I expect in the near future to hear more from Samuel Mariño, the young Venezuelan countertenor with a soprano voice. He more or less stole the show and got the biggest and longest applause at the end. His lovelorn Alessandro walked around with a naive smile while  clinging on to a giant coke with a straw. It was almost inevitable that this little-boy-lost would win the queen’s hand in the end. In the voice department  Mariño could still learn a trick or two, but he already has a remarkably assured stage presence and is still fairly inexperienced.

Conductor Jörg Halubeck doesn’t let the, at times frantic, action on stage affect the music and he keeps the very competent Handelfestspielorchester der Staatskapelle Halle in check. Handel’s arrangement was only for strings, oboes and basso continuo (in this case a harpsichord) and why Halubeck (?) deemed it necessary to add some modern style percussive effects to the score, is not clear. The score is quite descriptive as it is and  I think it suffices that  mobile ringtones played on harpsichord and other instruments have been added for comical effect.

But I do recommend you catching this production, particularly with this cast in place.

There will be two more performances during the Händel festival: June 2 and 7 at the Oper Halle.

The view from Mont Fort (3, 328 metres), photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


I am not surprised that so many  musicians return to the Verbier Festival year after year. The top soloists probably don’t get paid as much as they normally would get for a concert, but the real carrot is that they get to stay in a very comfortable chalet for a week, sometimes even two.  The south oriented terrace (at 1500 metres) that Verbier lies on offers magnificent views; on a clear day all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif. Soloists and conductors are also encouraged to bring their family. A soloist on tour leads quite a lonely existence and normally there is very little time for socialising.  But Verbier is not  like any ol’ festival.  The focus here is not only on the concerts for the general public. Another important aspect is the Academy (see previous blog) which nurtures young musicians. There are daily  masterclasses (open to the public) and a lot of music-making, some of it impromptu.

Verbier is one of the few festivals that gives young musicians  a chance to be on a stage with some of the world’s very best classical musicians. Festivalgoers can here also feel closer to the stars. Every day there is an opportunity to hear a world class musician perform in a very intimate setting.  This week you could have experienced Janine Jansen, Nikolai Lugansky or Joshua Bell perform in a modernish church  with seating for no more than 350 people.  Top soloists are also encouraged to form temporary quartets , quintets or sextets that,  if they were rock musicians, would be classified as ‘supergroups’. But it is not all strictly classical that is on offer. The bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff  visits with his trio presenting a programme consisting of jazz standards from the American songbook. Quasthoff has also been very busy giving master classes. The Chucho Valdés Quartet promises this Friday to turn the large Salle des Combins into a Cuban dance fest.

This year is the 24th edition of the festival and it is now a long established tradition that after every evening a different chalet owner welcomes the performers into his/her home after the concerts. These get- togethers, I am told, can be very fruitful and on top of that some of the premises are stunning. This kind of hospitality is another factor that makes the Verbier Festival so attractive for the performers.

We are now in the last week of the festival but ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. The seemingly endless stream of well-known artists continues until Sunday August 6. On Sunday opera stars of the future (some of them already professional)  get to perform Tchaikovsky’s opera  Eugen Onegin together with the Verbier Festival Junior Orchestra in front of a large audience.  This year there are quite a few Russian singers. The young Russian  Stanislav Kochanovsky conducts and he is already is in great demand by opera houses and symphony orchestras all over the world. That same evening the Festival’s final concert with the Verbier Festival Orchestra will be led by another Russian, Michael Pletnev.  We can look forward to Tchaikovsky’s symphony no.4 and his  violin concerto with Janine Jansen as soloist. Could it be that after this Slavic onslaught we will get an announcement about who will take over from Charles Dutoit as music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra? After eight years Dutoit passes on the baton and if the rumours are to be believed Valery Gergiev  will take over the directorship.  I think he would  feel at home in Verbier; quite a few of his countrymen already own chalets in this very exclusive holiday resort.

Daniel Lozakovich (violin), Lahav Shani (conductor), Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra 2017, photo: Aline Paley

The incredibly talented young Swede Daniel Lozakovich performed Max Bruch’s first violin concerto on Tuesday 25 July. Daniel started playing  10 years ago, which means that he is still only 16 years old. He is currently the youngest artist signed to Deutsche Gramm-ophon, but since that deal was done a year ago no record has been announced. I think I know the reason why. Daniel produces a lovely warm sound with quite a lot of vibrato. His interpretation of the Bruch concerto was very warm-hearted, but there was a lack of spontaneity, contrast and also pace. This sounded like a warhorse not quite prepared for battle. I do hope this precocious talent is not pushed too early into playing things that he can’t quite master.

The Israeli conductor Lahav Shani (27) is also relatively young but musically surprisingly mature. He studied in Tel Aviv and Berlin and was later mentored by Daniel Barenboim. This was the first time I saw Shani in action and I immediately liked his rapport with the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. They responded well to his elaborate, but very expressive arm gestures in the Bruch and did even better in Schubert’s ‘Great’ No.9. Shani conducted without a score, just like Barenboim likes to do, and the two screens on each side of the stage gave the audience a closer and frontal view of the kinship between the conductor and the musicians. Expect to see much more of this young man who is also a fine pianist. In 2018 Lahav Shani becomes the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, a position Valery Gergiev held between 1995-2008.

Francesco Piemontesi at the Verbier Festival 2017, photo:Aline Paley

In the Église I saw The Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (34) who has been on the radar of music critics ever since he was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. He is always praised for “intellectual rigour”. If that means that he isn’t very showy I would agree. His rendition of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K330 was a little bit too crisp for my liking. But when he tackled Liszt’s Saint Français de Paule marchant sur les flots he didn’t hold back and showed that he can do flashy as well. Piemontesi is a very apt Schubert (Sonata no.20 in A) interpreter, with a preference for the composer’s last sonatas. But the pianist was particularly impressive in three Debussy preludes. Coming after the Liszt pieces you could clearly hear Debussy’s source and inspiration. Piemontesi is great for clarity, virtuosity and colour, but mystery is not his thing. This was my first meeting with Piemontesi, but I will keep an eye on him.

his concert and many others from the Verbier Festival 2017 you can find on The festival continues until August 6.

Verbier Festival Website

Julia Sporsén as Káťa and members of the OHP Chorus in Opera Holland Park's production of Káťa Kabanová © Robert Workman

Searing Kát’a Kabanová in Holland Park

Seen July 21, 2017  in Holland Park, London

Leoš Janáček’s obsession with a woman almost 40 years his junior can seem very unattractive on paper. But Kamila Stösslová didn’t seem to care much one way or another. And Janáček’s (unrequited?) love spawned yet another operatic masterpiece, Kát’a Kabanová.

Janáček dedicated the work to Kamila but it was his own long-suffering wife who really deserved a dedication. Fair enough, Kamila was Leoš’ latest muse and the composer was already living apart from his wife Zdenka (but they were not divorced).  Zdenka had after the death of their daughter Olga endured her husband’s open affair with the soprano that sang Kostelnička in the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. Zdenka even attempted suicide, but failed unlike Kabanová in the opera. In the end Zdenka and Leoš sorted out a financial arrangement which stopped short at divorce, which would have been considered scandalous, just as it is in Kát’a Kabanová.

Janáček found the 25 year old Kamila while holidaying in 1917 in the spa resort Luhacovice. She had very little interest in highfalutin culture and when they were introduced she didn’t have a clue who the famous composer was. Janáček was straight away smitten and would have hoped that Kamila responded to his advances like Kabanová does when she is seduced by Boris in the opera. But  initially Kamila was not particularly excited by the 63-year old.  She had no reason to,  because she was happily married with two children. The first ten years of the friendship Kamila rarely responded to  Janáček’s unyielding stream of love letters (some 700 have survived). In 1927 the relationship became closer, but exactly to what extent the intimacy stretched is not known. One thing is for certain, Kamila remained the composer’s muse and it is perhaps significant that she was at Janáček’s side when he died in 1928.

The wooden gangways along the Volga are narrow, and so are the local people’s minds. Photo: Robert Workman

Janáček was a Russophile, visited Russia (where his brother lived) a number of times, spoke the language and read all the classic Russian authors. He even started a Russian Circle in his home town of Brno. Kát’a Kabanová is based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s very popular play The Storm (1859). The libretto is Janáček’s own adaptation and he stuck pretty much to the text, but had to make fairly significant cuts.

REVIEW                                                                                                                              Four out of six scenes take place on the banks of the Volga in a small provincial town far removed from the urban sophistication of Moscow. The Moscovite Boris has fallen in love with Káterina (Kát’a) Kabanová, who is in a childless and loveless marriage that she needs to escape. She also has to get away from her oppressive mother-in-law Kabanicha. Kát’a’s impotent husband Tichon is browbeaten by his own mother (Kabanicha) and it is no wonder that he tries to find solace in the demon drink.                                                                                              I can’t say that I was aware of the Swedish soprano Julia Sporsén previously, but after hearing her sing Kát’a Kabanová rest assured that we will see a lot more of her in the future. Sporsén’s fellow countrywoman Elisabeth Söderström set the musical benchmark (well, at least outside Czechoslovakia) back in the 70s, but Sporsén is already not far off that mark. In Act 1, scene 2 Kát’a reminisces about her carefree life before marriage, her happy memories going to church and feeling like she was flying with “invisible voices singing everywhere”. She then confesses to Varvara that she is in love with another man (Boris) but she feels deeply ashamed of her sinful thoughts. This is a key scene and Sporsén is radiant portraying a woman on the verge of a breakdown. “Like standing on the edge of a cliff”, she sings with a well supported and clear voice. The music glows quietly “like great golden cathedrals”.                                      Designer Yannis Thavoris has been inspired by Kabanová’s wish to fly away and he has constructed a living room with walls that look like an aviary.                                                                                                     Kabanicha, ably sung by Anne Mason, sends away her son Tichon on a business trip. The hypocritical Kabanicha then receives her lover, the oafish merchant Dikój, who happens to be Boris’s uncle. Menwhile Varvara, sung impressively by Clare Presland, arranges a secret meeting between Kát’a and Boris in the garden. Varvara takes the opportunity to meet her beau, the schoolteacher Kudrjaš.

Boris (Peter Hoare) and Kát’a (Julia Sporsén) share a rare happy moment Photo © Robert Workman

Janáček made sure that there is a clear distinction in the music that accompanies these three pairs of lovers. But there is no doubt that the title role dominates the whole opera. Nicky Spence as the downtrodden Tichon tries bravely to make more of his role than the two-dimensional character that it really is. Spence is by now a Janáček veteran (see my review of Grange Park Opera’s Jenůfa in which Spence was an excellent Števa). Peter Hoare has sung Laca in various productions of Jenůfa (including Grange Park) and his lyrical voice is ideally suited for the role of the meekish Boris.

In Act 3 we return to the banks of the Volga where a crowd of people are seeking shelter from a storm. Kudrjaš explains that a lightning conductor could help divert the danger, but Dikój is convinced that storms are punishments from the Almighty. In this play/opera the old world’s values, superstitions and old wives’ tales still hold sway. When the storm clears Varvara finds Boris to tell him that Tichon has returned and hence Kát’a’s mental state is deteriorating. Whereupon Kát’a rushes in like a madwoman and Varvara can’t stop her from telling Tichon and Kabanová about her sins. This confessional scene is kept fairly straightforward (without too many semi-religious overtones) in Olivia Fuchs’s effective production. The focus in the third act is completely onKát’a.  Sporsén’s searing voice makes the nervous excitement (OK, hysteria) perfectly believable and Kabanová’s suicide hardly comes as a surprise.

Director Olivia Fuchs makes good use of the chorus for a number of tableaux vivant (the chorus only really sings and hums in the third act). The wooden gangplanks across the water make it difficult for people to pass and this perhaps reflects the narrow-mindedness of the town’s bourgeoisie.

Conductor Sian Edwards with City of London Sinfonia deserves a special credit for making Opera Holland Park’s production of Káťa Kabanová extra special© Robert Workman

Mother Volga is a constant (even psychological) force in the opera and is also present in the music, to start with in the overture and finally in the chorus intoning the Volga’s “sighing”.                                 What I particularly like about the temporary set-up in Holland Park is that the orchestra pit is not half hidden and both the conductor and orchestra are always clearly visible . As a consequence you watch the conductor and the musicians much more than you would in a more conventional opera house. Sian Edwards has a total grip on this score. She beautifully coaxes out the Sibelian, even Straussian Janáček in the overture and interludes. He was not as brilliant an orchestrator as the mentioned colleagues, but the lyrical flow in this opera is equaled by few of his contemporaries (and Sibelius of course never composed a real opera). The City of London Sinfonia effortlessly negotiated the emotional swings.

All in all this is a very worthwhile revival.

Tickets are still available for both 26 and 28 July.



Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, seen July  2017  Grange Park Opera, Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place.

Janáček’s associated his opera Jenůfa with both the death of his young son Vladimir and the slow and tortuous illness that took his daughter Olga away from him.  Jenůfa was his third opera and it took ten years to complete, but at least he managed to finish the piano score and play it to Olga as she lay dying. She loved it and the work was dedicated to her. She was buried with the last page of the score.

Jenůfa is Janáček’s  masterpiece, but its triumph on the world’s great opera stages was by no means immediate. After the premiere in the composer’s hometown Brno in 1904 it took 12 years for the work to be put on in Prague.  It was only then that it started to get universal acclaim. But for Janáček it still must have been quite frustrating because the Prague version had been revised and orchestrated by the National Theatre’s music director. Consequently it was this heavily edited version that was played all over the world until the 1980s. Nowadays only the original is performed.

The original play, Její pastorkyňa (which means Her Stepdaughter  in Czech), that Jenůfa is based on is by the Bohemian writer Gabrieala Preissova. This village drama’s subject matter clearly offended many within the (nationalistic) cultural establishment. Preissova was a promising  dramatist and she had initially been encouraged to write Her Stepdaughter (which was renamed Jenůfa when it was introduced in Germany) by the National Theatre in Prague.  But it only survived for a few performances, before the subject matter was considered to be too controversial and the play was dropped.

Janáček on the other hand was fascinated and he understood that the time for naturalism in opera had arrived. Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Puccini (Madama Butterfly) and Richard Strauss (Elektra) were at the same time trying to create characters that had real psychological depth and used language that was not particularly poetic. Janáček adapted Preissova’s text himself by cutting almost a third and adding some more Moravian dialect and speech patterns. He focused very much on speech melody and this is why words and sentences are so often repeated in this work. Jenůfa became the first Czech opera set in prose instead of verse.

The garden at West Horsley is picture perfect for a languid picnic.


THE PLOT  Jenůfa is Kostelnička Buryjovka ’s adopted child. Hence the original title of the play Her Stepdaughter ( it can also mean Her Foster-daughter in Czech) which also indicates that Kostelnička, or the sextoness, is as much of a principal character as Jenůfa. At the start of the opera Jenůfa is already pregnant with her cousin Števa Buryja’s child but she has managed to keep it secret, although Števa’s jealous stepbrother Laca is suspicious.  The problem is that Laca is also in love with Jenůfa.  Števa is relieved that he hasn’t been drafted into the army and is celebrating by drinking himself into a stupor. Laca senses an opportunity, but is turned down once more and out of jealousy disfigures Jenůfa’s face with a knife.

It is impossible to understand how the different characters are related to each other without consulting a family tree, which luckily the programme provides.

Laca knifes Jenufa

It is in the second act that real drama unfolds. We find out why Kostelnička is being such a killjoy and control freak. Five months have passed and Jenůfa has just had her baby. But Kostelnička has stopped Jenůfa from marrying  Števa and he has now fallen in love with another woman and is unaware that Jenůfa has had his child.  Kostelnička is so eager to protect Jenůfa because Števa reminds her too much of her own husband ( Števa’s uncle) who mistreated her badly. Kostelnička’s way of dealing with the problems is shocking: she drowns  the baby arguing that he resembles Števa. She also knows that it will be easier to re-marry without the shame of having to deal with an illegitimate child. When Jenůfa  finds out what has happened she fist reacts as you would expect but then seems willing to accept that this is the will of God. By the end of the act she has even consented to marry Laca.

Jenufa – Leos Janacek – Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place , Kostelnicka: Susan Bullock,

In the third act everyone is getting ready for the wedding. Even Števa and his fiancée are in attendance. But just when everybody is about to go off to church a girl storms in with the news that the winter ice has broken up and the body of a baby that was stuck underneath the ice in the stream has just been found. Jenůfa  immediately recognises her child’s clothes. Thinking that she drowned her baby the crowd turns on her, but to everyone’s surprise Kostelnička confesses to murder. Incredibly she is forgiven by Jenůfa because she meant well. Laca doesn’t take up the offer to leave Jenůfa. No, he will stick with her and start a new life.

REVIEW Director Katie Mitchell has picked up on the claustrophobic element of the play. She sets all three acts in quite cramped rooms. The first act is normally staged outsid, near the mill, which Števa now owns. This is a place where the people of the village naturally gather. The xylophone, which is heard on a number of occasions in the first act, is probably meant to suggest the spinning mill wheel. Mitchell also pretty much ignores the symbolism, which perhaps is quite obvious, and the religious element of the libretto. For a UK production those are not great losses. The (revival) director has probably stressed the psychological aspects of the characters and the acting is throughout very strong. In a ‘naturalistic’ opera like this all the characters have to be believable. The Welsh Natalya Romaniw as Jenůfa  has a great stillness on stage, but perhaps we could feel her anxiety a little bit more in the first act and I believe she could be encouraged to take more risks  Romaniw’s voice is focused and never less than impressive. I would say that she is now ready for the big opera houses. Both Števa (Nicky Spence) and Laca (Peter Hoare) are strong performers. Hoare’s tenor voice is full of sweetness when he tries to persuade Jenůfa to marry him. It is not an easy role to pull off in a believable way but Hoare does it. The heart and soul of this opera is without a doubt Kostelnička and Susan Bullock is equal to the challenge. In the first act she is the hard-hearted woman and in the second act her ruthlessness and strength come to the fore. Bullock portrays a no-nonsense woman who genuinely believes that she is helping Jenůfa by manipulating her love-life and drowning the baby. It is chilling but Bullock also shows the human core at the centre of the character. But it is difficult to understand her totally misguided thought process. Bullock is not over-dramatic in the crucial second act and keeps it all fairly straightforward. She is perhaps all the more frightening for that very reason. Yes, Bullock really helps to make this a memorable production.

It is a happy ending of sorts…..

Janáček and his students collected more than 10.000 folksongs throughout Moravia, but apparently there are no direct quotes in this opera. The choruses in the first and third act sound genuinely folksy but Janáček has simply been very clever and made it all up. But the rhythms , intervals and short burst of melody are sometimes derided from folkloric sources. The BBC Concert Orchestra is such a versatile band that they can cope with all the challenges that the score throws up.  Conductor William Lacey doesn’t linger in the lyrical passages and gives the score the sense of unease and anxiety that Janáček wanted to come across. There can be no doubt about the cathartic role of the music in the end when Jenůfa and Laca decide to start a new life and the opera ends in a rousing major chord while the back wall opens up to reveal… a young child sitting in a field of green shoots.

The gardens at West Horsley Place are ideal for picnicing

The brand new Theatre in the Woods isn’t quite finished yet, but the acoustics are good. I visited on a hot day and inside the auditorium the heat was stifling. That can’t have done the singers and the musicians any good, not to mention the audience. I hope this can be sorted out in the future. The gardens at West Horsley Place are marvellous and the house looks pretty stunning as well. You simply must visit!

Photo: Alice Pennefather


Il Turco in Italia, music: Gioachino Rossini libretto: Felice Romani, seen at Wormsley, Garsington Opera,  2 July 2017

It is the vitality of Il Turco in Italia’s overture, with its wonderful plaintive horn solo, that immediately sucks you into Rossini’s masterful satire on the age-old theme of the flighty wife, the cuckolded husband and the exotic lover. For extra spice (and some lovely tenor arias) this dramma buffo adds a second, rather dull boyfriend.

Rossini commissioned Felice Romani to adapt a libretto that was originally composed in 1788 for an opera by the German Franz Seydelmann. Romani’s version was considered to be more libidinous and daring than Mozart’s Così fan tutte which had been staged just before Rossini’s work was premiered at La Scala in August 1814. Its racy reputation and the fact that early on some of the most effective arias and cavatinas were cut  did the work no favours.  In the 20th century it was only revived (but with all the cuts still in place) as late as 1950 in Rome, with Maria Callas in the role of Fiorilla.  Callas recorded the opera four years later and she set the benchmark incredibly high. She more or less owned the role for decades despite the fact that she never got to sing Fiorilla’s most powerful aria. The self-pitying but terrific aria Sqallida vesta a bruna hadn’t been rediscovered when Callas sang the role.

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) makes men go weak around the knees.
Photo:Alice Pennefather

This is a revival of a Garsington Opera’s  2011 production but with the original director in charge it all once more comes alive.

The opera’s stock-characters (some of them wafer-thin) are based on classic commedia dell’arte figures but the often very clever lyrics combined with Rossini’s orchestral brilliance provide the singers with all that is needed to present a believable  performance. In a couple of places the staging is perhaps a tad too cartoonish, but in general director Martin Duncan keeps the silliness in check. It would be easy to deconstruct the plot in postmodern fashion. The meta-theatricality is already  a given in the libretto.

The first act of this production is an absolute delight. The poet Prosdocimo, suffering writer’s block, is in search of some real characters  and a dramatic plot. And really, any characters will do as far as he is concerned, at this point. Prosdocimo is reminiscent of the Don Alfonso character in Così fan tutte. Rossini also briefly quotes Mozart’s opera in the trio Un marito scimunito.  Prosdocimo, who is well characterised by Mark Stone, is elated to instantly be presented with  a first act that has all the hallmarks of a tragic farce with love triangles and philandering popping up in virtually every scene. Initially Prosdocimo just observes the action, but soon he tries to influence the proceedings  to fit his own story. Fiorilla resents being described by the poet as a wayward wife. Her husband Geronio and her lover Narciso are both extremely offended by Prosdocimo when they read how he is going describe them in his play.

the Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang is the only survivor from the previous production and he makes a dashing Selim. This young Turkish prince literally forces his entrance through the Neapolitan backdrop when he docks his yacht in the harbour. He doesn’t even have time to finish his aria Bella Italia before he sets eyes on Fiorilla. Despite being married she is also game and leaves in no doubt what she makes of Selim’s advances.  De Quirijn’s looks the part and can act as well. His voice is perhaps a little underpowered and I would like to hear more tonal variety, but on stage his portrayal of this smooth cad more than makes up for these flaws. Geoffrey Dolton as the deceived Geronio is totally in his element and his comic timing is spotless and the cause of much hilarity. The tragedy is that I actually used to know an Italian who was not unlike his portrayal of this henpecked figure. I think the part was originally written for a baritone-bass and  a bit of dark tonal bluster wouldn’t do the Dolton’s performance any harm.

Selim seems to have Fiorella in his grip, when Geronio enters
Photo:Alice Pennefather

Some of the most effective and funniest scenes in the first act are the duets between Geronino and his capricious wife. Particularly when he catches her red-handed with Selim in his own home In the duet Per piacere alla signora leading into No, mia vito, mio tesoro Fiorilla first wins Geronio back with charm, only to then fly into a mock rage that makes it believable that Geronio will plead on his knees for her to forgive him.  Soon Fiorilla will have her own reasons for jealousy when she finds out that the gypsy  Zaida (Katie Bray) was once Selim’s lover and she is  back on  the scene, having established her fortune-telling business in Naples.  Selim has clearly not forgotten their amorous past. Encouraged by the poet Fiorilla and Zaida come to blows at the end of Act I.

The fortune-teller Zaida (Katie Bray) probably knows from the start that she will get her man. Photo:Alice Pennefather

It gets even better in the second act as Selim offers to buy Fiorilla from Geromio, who is horrified.  The poet is willing to stir a bit more by organising a masked ball and he tells Geronio that Selim plans to abduct Fiorilla. But if Geronio turns up dressed like Selim he can foil the plot. But at the party confusion reigns because Narciso has also come dressed as the Turk and he ends up with the trophy, Fiorilla. Selim gets Zaida. This means that Geronio ends up with nobody.  This again necessitates the poet’s intervention and Gernonio throws Fiorilla out of the house and tells her to go back to the hovel where she came from in Sorrento. I know, very confusing, but the point is that Rossini was a master of musically illustrating “chaos without casuality” (to quote the Viennese critic Karl Kraus).

Fiorilla gets to sing her heartbreaking aria Squallida veste e bruna (the one that Callas never got to sing). It is hard for Geronio and the audience, and the poet, not to melt. Geronio takes her back, Selim sails back home with his first love and we have a happy ending.

She is a headturner, that Fiorilla.
Photo: Alice Pennefather

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) is a headturner when she spins her 1950s pleated red skirt in the first act. Tynan has as much vivid colour in her voice as her dress is scarlet in the second act. On top of that she handles appoggiaturas and embellishments with such ease and firmness that it is no wonder that she is irresistible to all men in this opera. Tynan could be a little bit more sharp-tongued ( Cecilia Bartoli and Callas are worth a listen) but she deserves to be seen even more in this country.

Martin Duncan sets the opera in 1950s Italy and well travelled moviegoers will instantly recognise Federico Fellini’s world. The set by Francis O’Connor is uncomplicated and effective.

Rossini was an excellent choral writer (listen to his Stabat Mater) and the  22-year old here already proves his mastery of the genre. The Garsington Opera Chorus – picked from the latest crop of conservatory graduates and students – is young and eager to please. They get to play gypsies, Turks, sailors and masked partygoers. They are remarkably confident and entertaining for being relatively inexperienced.  I am sure chorus master Susanna Stranders deserves a huge credit for this.

The opera was a bit of a rush job (as most of Rossini’s works seem to have been) and the rather disappointing finale he apparently left in the hands of an assistent. The secco recitatives of the poet are also not from the master’s hand, as is not the rather pointless aria by Albazar. Mark Stone handles the slightly irritating writer role with aplomb. Katie Bray as Zaida is fiery and you can understand that Selim in the end prefers her to Fiorilla.

Conductor David Parry is an expert in this field and he clearly has brought out the best in most of the singers. The playing of the overture I found strangely muted ( and therefore a bit un-Rossini like) but thereafter the orchestra picked up and added sparkle and humour wherever it was required. As always with Rossini there is ample lyrical brilliance in the orchestration, but on the evidence of this amusing work it is not bleeding obvious that he soon would be going on to compose one of the absolute masterpieces of the opera buffa genre, Il barbieri di Siviglia.

This was a very enjoyable evening helped by the stunning weather. The Garsington Opera auditorium is an architectural marvel, inspired by Japanese architecture. When the weather is good (and it always seems to be when I visit) you can let the sun in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. This provided the whole first act of the opera some lovely natural lighting that one couldn’t possibly replicate with stage lights.

I also think the picnic setting with the lake, the lush forests, the rolling hills, the deer park, the gardens and  the cricket pitch is the perfect advertisement for English country house opera at its glorious best.



Albert Herring (far right) is told no uncertain terms that he must be the May King. Photo: Robert Workman


Albert Herring, music: Benjamin Britten, libretto:Eric Crozier, seen at The Grange Festival , June 25 2017

Why did Benjamin Britten not write more comedy operas? On the evidence of this Grange Festival production he was clearly seriously good at being funny and clever at the same time. Was Britten afraid of not being taken seriously?

Benjamin Britten is in my book the (world’s) most versatile opera composer from the post-war era. Peter Grimes is a tragic masterpiece. The Turn of the Screw is that rare thing: a ghost story that improves when set to music. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a respectful adaptation of Shakespeare with some highly individual music. Death in Venice manages to add an extra dimension to Thomas Mann’s obsessive and creepy tale about a professor pursuing an underage boy. Comedy and opera all too often strange and even uncomfortable bedfellows (comedy is better suited to operettas and musicals). But Britten was a composer who could turn his hand to seemingly anything.

This new production of Albert Herring at the Grange Festival in Hampshire makes it clear that comedy suited him very well. Yes, this production is new, but a couple of people on the team are the world’s most experienced Britten experts. They could have done this in their sleep. Luckily they are wide awake and still very much on the ball. The 83-year old director John Copley directs  worked with Britten\s company as a young man (and was kicked out after a few years). He has directed Albert Herring many times in different countries. The 87-year old conductor  Steuart Bedford’s mother was part of the original cast of both The Rape of Lucretia and  Albert Herring.  Bedford has during his long career conducted all of Britten’s operas and recorded Herring for the Naxos label. With these veterans on board this Grange Festival production was practically unsinkable.

Lady Billows (Orla Boylan) takes advice from her housekeeper (Clarissa Meek) photographer: Robert Workman

Eric Crozier directed Benjamin Britten’s first opera Peter Grimes in 1945 and then took on the same duties for the next opera, The Rape of Lucretia. To his surprise Crozier was then asked by Britten to come up with some ideas for a comedy. Crozier suggested Guy de Maupassant’s novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea that it could easily be transposed from its original Normandy setting to East Suffolk, where the composer grew up. Britten then gave the somewhat astonished Crozier the job of librettist. It is clear that Crozier and Britten worked together very closely. Crozier helped Britten  to reveal the characters through the music.

Peter Grimes is set in a fictive fishing village in Suffolk. The location is reminiscent of Aldeburgh, the town where Britten lived and established his own festival. In Albert Herring the action takes place in a village called Loxford. The similarities with Yorford in East Suffolk, not far from where Britten grew up, are not incidental.

The overbearing and snobbish Lady Billows  has invited  local dignitaries to her manor to deliberate the candidate for the the title of May Queen. The Superintendent,  the head teacher at the church school, the vicar  and the Mayor mention a number of virtuous and chaste young girls that seem perfectly suitable. But Lady Billow, who is the main sponsor,  follows her stern housekeeper’s advice and turns them all down. Therefore the decision is made to pick a May King. The shy, innocent and fairly simple  greengrocer’s son Albert Herring is deemed to be a perfect candidate.  Albert demurs but his totally domineering mother is not going to give up on the  prize money. Albert is under her thumb and gives in. At the May Fest things start to go off the rails. Albert’s lemonade is spiked with rum by the mischievous butcher’s boy who hopes that it will loosen up the teetotal greengrocer’s assistant. The potion begins to work and the orchestra responds with variations on Wagner’s magical Tristan chord. This is typical of Britten’s,  at times, brilliant pastiches in this score. In the first act he dips into parlour music, there are children’s ditties, beguiling  easy-on-the-ear love music, there is cheeky whistling and Alban Berg also makes an appearance. There are even shades of Verdi’s Falstaff in the last act.

This Sid Tim Nelson) and Nancy(Kitty Whateley) couple are not into punk music. Photo: Robert Workman

Albert has become quite tipsy from the rum punch, but when he overhears  the butcher’s boy Sid and  the baker’s daughter Nancy canoodling he decides that it is time for him to break free.  The next day Albert doesn’t turn up for work and everybody is worried. When the wreath with which Albert was crowned is found, crushed by a cart, everybody fears the worst.  Albert is assumed dead and the May King organisers join Albert’s mother to  sing a heartfelt threnody. Suddenly the lamented son just wanders in, his virgin-white suit all soiled, but clearly happy. He has had a drunken good night. lost his virginity and thanks the commission for is financial contribution to it all.  This shocking confession leads to his title being retracted. Albert doesn’t care, his newly found freedom has changed his outlook totally. Nancy is a bit smitten by the liberated Albert. In an act of biblical  symbolism Albert ends up giving away the apples and peaches from the shop to the children who happily take a bite. It is a happy ending (as opposed to the de Maupassant original).

Albert in the virgin-white suit of the May King.
Photo: Robert Workman

The 13 singers and 13 musicians (with some of them doubling up on instruments) show off a real sense of ensemble spirit. You can feel that the cast enjoy performing this opera. The lament for Albert in act three is a beautiful piece of writing and sung with verve..  Because Albert Herring is a comedy we can laugh about it but  if this threnody were to feature in a tragic opera it would fill you with sadness.

Richard Pinkstone (Albert Herring)  in the lead is a believable mother’s boy with a suitably pleasant voice. Herring overhears Sid and Nancy taking the mickey out of him and Pinkstone could emphasize his sexual awakening and frustration a bit more, but otherwise this is a remarkably confident display from a relatively inexperienced singer. I also liked soprano Anna Gillingham’s insecure school mistress Miss Wordsworth and she is a talent to keep an eye on.  The Irish soprano Orla Boylan  (Lady Billows) is asked to act much older than her age and does she pull it off! Hers is the standout performance of this show and she manages to make a wonderful meal out of the old bag’s mixed up speech at the May fest.

It is good to see that young singers here get a chance to sing  meaty roles.  The International Singing Competition that the Grange festival organises in September provides a wonderful opportunity for talent to filter through and next year we will hopefully hear some of the  winners.

Steuart Bedford probably knows this score backwards and the very versatile Aurora Orchestra is the right fit for this chamber work that incorporates so many different musical styles. There are some tricky passages and quite a few  sound effects (whistling, various clocks and bells).  Then there is  the strangely contemplative interlude (or ballet) between act two and three, but it all adds up to a very original opera score.

Remaining performances June 29, July 1,7,9

The Grange,  Hampshire, Alresford. SO24 9TG