Susanna: George Frideric Handel (1749)

Handel: Susanna

★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 5 March 2019)

The Biblical story of Susanna is very timely. A beautiful woman in a happy marriage is targeted by two powerful elders in her community while her husband is away. When she rejects their sexual advances, they revenge themselves by publicly accusing her of adultery with a mysterious third person, destroying her reputation and bringing shame upon her family. She is condemned to death but, in the nick of time, is rescued by the youthful prophet Daniel, who interrogates the elders, exposing inconsistencies in their stories. Susanna is vindicated and the two elders condemned to death in her place. At the risk of sounding frivolous, this is the #MeToo oratorio, and any director handling the story in the present climate will be forcibly aware of the parallels. This new production from the Royal Opera House, which features singers from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, is a little too eager to demonstrate its social conscience. It tackles not only the sexual exploitation of women (as expected) but also (less logically) the climate crisis. The result is weighed down by concept, which – at least on the first night – risked distracting attention from the grace and variety of Handel’s music.

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Berenice: George Frideric Handel (1737)

Handel: Berenice

★★★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 30 March 2019)

The newly-restored Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House is currently playing host to a very special production. It isn’t often that you get to see Baroque operas performed on the same site where they were premiered, but that’s the case here with Handel’s 1737 opera Berenice, a feast of love, jealousy and political ambition set in Roman-era Egypt. Sumptuously costumed in 18th-century gowns, wigs and frock coats, an excellent cast plunges into this tale with enormous gusto, under the expert baton of Laurence Cummings, directing the London Handel Orchestra. Vivid, exuberant and presented in a perfectly-pitched English translation, this is easily the most fun I’ve had in a theatre since last year’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. Baroque heaven.

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Swan Lake: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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★★★★½

(Royal Opera House, 22 May 2018)

As most of you will be aware, I approach ballet with caution; but the one score I know better than any other is Swan Lake, partly because I’ve watched the Matthew Bourne version on DVD more times than I care to remember, and partly because Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music has provided the motivational soundtrack for many revision periods and work deadlines over the last fifteen years. So, when I was lucky enough to be invited to the sold-out new production at Covent Garden – the first new staging for thirty years, devised by Liam Scarlett – I leapt at the chance. And, by heaven, it was a joy. Sumptuous staging, fabulous costumes and breathtaking skill all came together to create three hours of utter magic – a ballet with heart as well as visual splendour. Thank you E!

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Elizabeth

Elizabeth

★★★★

(Royal Ballet at the Barbican Theatre, 16 May 2018)

This fascinating chamber-piece is a revival of a production performed in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House in 2016. Choreographed and directed by Will Tuckett, with text by Alasdair Middleton, music by Martin Yates and dazzling costumes by Fay Fullerton, it’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Combining dance, music, spoken word and song, it’s the closest thing to an Elizabethan court masque that you’ll see on the London stage, and its ambitious structure is uniquely appropriate. For it tells the story of Elizabeth I herself, from romantic young princess, to shrewd strategic queen, to lonely old woman, all brought to life with astonishing conviction by Zenaida Yanowsky.

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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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Mitridate Re di Ponto: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1770)

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★★★★

(Royal Opera House, 7 July 2017)

Mitridate, king of Pontus, is missing, presumed dead. His two sons, Farnace and Sifare, have returned from the battlefield to skulk around their father’s palace and engage in the traditional pastime of operatic royalty: viz. each scheming to beat the other to the throne. Farnace, billed as the ‘evil’ son, is considering an alliance with the wicked Romans. Sifare, the ‘good’ son, is deeply in love with his father’s intended bride, the beautiful princess Aspasia. Plots are well underway when – shock horror! – it turns out that Mitridate isn’t actually dead at all, but has allowed such rumours to spread in the hope of testing his sons’ loyalty. When he returns to Pontus, the scene is set for a right royal show-down. One of Mozart’s first operas, written when he was only fourteen, this has its issues – numerous issues – as a piece of work, but it’s presented in the Royal Opera House’s classic and extravagant production, with a really splendid cast.

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Oreste: George Frideric Handel (1734)

Handel: Oreste

★★★½

(Royal Opera House at Wilton’s Music Hall, 9 November 2016)

This was my third Handel pasticcio, after Elpidia and Catone in Utica, but it differed from both of these in that Oreste is made up purely of Handel’s own earlier work.  It hung together much more successfully as a result, with melodies that tickled my memory but nothing that shouted its origins elsewhere. It’s the fourth of the Royal Opera House’s Baroque productions that I’ve seen in other venues and, after the immensity of the Roundhouse’s Orfeo and the intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse’s Ormindo and Orpheus, Wilton’s Music Hall offered an appropriately faded setting for this tale of love and madness at the end of the world.

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The Marriage of Figaro: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786)

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

★★★★★

(Royal Opera House, via Vue Cinemas, 5 October 2015)

About a month ago I had a spate of ‘firsts’: my first Macbeth, in the striking film version and then, just a couple of days later, my first Figaro, thanks to the Royal Opera House’s excellent live cinema broadcasts. Heloise has been urging me to watch Figaro ever since I first expressed a cautious interest in opera about a year and a half ago. She can feel herself vindicated at last. Of course I would have loved to see the show in person, but thrift is of the essence and so I plumped for the cinema, and three hours of stunning close-ups and lush, intoxicating detail.

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Don Giovanni: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787)

Mozart: Don Giovanni

★★★

(Royal Opera House, directed by Kasper Holten, 1 July 2015)

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to book tickets for the opera on the hottest day since 2006, but nevertheless here I was, wilting gently in my standing place at the back of the stalls in the Royal Opera House, and preparing myself for my first encounter with Don Giovanni. As I’ve come at opera by a rather niche route, I’ve managed to avoid virtually all the great blockbusters and so knew nothing about Don G beyond the plot. I hadn’t even heard any of the music before. And I have to be brutally honest and say that I didn’t immediately warm to it as an opera.

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Ormindo: Francesco Cavalli (1644)

Cavalli: Ormindo

★★★★★

(Royal Opera House at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February-March 2015)

In writing about Cavalli’s Ormindo, it’s hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I’m going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful debut in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli’s operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there’s nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe.

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