Many disciplines, one opera

I recently wrote two articles which complement each other – imagine it as a diptych of sorts – on a contemporary opera, Kepler’s Trial:

  • the first is a review, for Seen And Heard International, of the work by composer Tim Watts (Cambridge and Royal College of Music)
  • the second focuses on the unusual inter-disciplinary effort behind the opera. The article, for Talking Humanities*, consists of an interview with Prof. Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge).

*curated by the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of the humanities

Why write two articles about it? Because the Kepler’s Trial project is and does so much of what I think contemporary opera is capable of being and doing. It delves into the past to engage with the present.

For the review of Kepler’s Trial on Seen And Heard International, click here.

For the article in Talking Humanities on the unusual process behind the opera, click here.

Image credits:

Statue by Jakob Wilhelm Fehrle dedicated to Katharina Kepler in Eltingen (Leonberg, Germany). Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation licence.

Portrait of Johannes Kepler. Reproduced under Public Domain licence.

Image from Seen and Heard International website.

Image from Talking Humanities website.

The inventiveness of the Baroque

My latest article for Seen And Heard International covers L’Arpeggiata and Giuseppina Bridelli. Their intelligent, exciting programme at Wigmore Hall revealed just how musically innovative the early Baroque was. Astoundingly beautiful and expressive music, gloriously performed. You can access the full review by clicking here.

S&HI review on L'Arpeggiata and G. Bridelli

Opera and the present

Kepler's Trial - resized

Cerys Purser (Katharina) in Kepler’s Trial © Aura Satz

My latest review for Seen And Heard International is of Kepler’s Trial by Tim Watts. You can access it freely by clicking here.

Kepler’s Trial is a remarkable example of opera firmly engaging with the present – a characteristic of this art form since its earliest days. It does so in two interrelated ways: by condensing and conveying the results of uncompromising scholarship; and by revisiting the past. It tells the story of Katharina Kepler (1546-1622), accused of witchcraft in 1615, and of her son Johannes (1571-1630), the famous astronomer, who defended her during her six-year trial. By shedding light on true historical events, it confronts us with present-day attitudes towards big themes, as if a magical telescope which can probe the past had hit upon a mirror and found its own image hazily but surely reflected back.

The panel discussion which preceded the sold-out performance at the V&A highlighted some of the themes. Prof. Ulinka Rublack, whose The Astronomer and the Witch offers the basis for the opera, spoke about old women’s vulnerability to injurious representations. Prof. Simon Schaffer provided insights into Kepler’s complexity as a man rooted in his time and yet also transcending it (no surprise the space observatory launched by Nasa to discover Earth-like planets is named after Kepler). Dame Marina Warner placed the astronomer’s youthful The Dream in the context of wonder tales and representations of ‘wise women’. The composer Tim Watts and the video artist Aura Satz shared some of the considerations which went into the music, libretto and film elements (see review).

Behind Kepler’s Trial is a multi-disciplinary effort involving scholars from the University of Cambridge and other institutions, across several faculties. A successful synthesis of that effort into a compelling outcome is worth shouting about and being brought to a wider public.

Image credits:

Photo by Aura Satz ©. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.


Astonishingly modern 18th-century opera

Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate

Recently I reviewed three operas for Seen And Heard International.  Two of them – one by Piccinni, the other by Vivaldi – date to the eighteenth century but are astonishingly modern in their questioning of gender stereotypes.  This is all the more striking, at a time when the gender pay gap at the BBC and a divisive memo by a Google employee about gender and diversity initiatives are making the headlines.

The two operas formed part of the engaged and engaging programming of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, one of Italy’s oldest opera festivals.  Located in Puglia and now in its forty-third edition, this year it adopted the theme ‘Love and Mars’ – not the more usual ‘Venus and Mars’ because one of the programme’s fils rouges was the querying of gender roles.  That querying was not an anachronistic re-interpreting of the relevant operas by their directors, but faithful to their texts and music.

The first of the two operas is Le Donne Vendicate (The Women’s Revenge) by Niccoló Piccinni (1728-1800), with a libretto derived from the Enlightenment playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793).  See review here.

S&HI Le Donne Vendicate 2The second is Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), with a libretto by Grazio Braccioli (1682-1752) based on the eponymous work by the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533).  See review here.

S&HI Orlando FuriosoBoth works are steeped in the experimentation and questioning of the Enlightenment (and, in Ariosto’s case, in that current of Renaissance humanism which sided with women in the Querelle des Femmes but lost out during the Counter Reformation), but periods of significant cultural ferment have, historically, alternated with others of retrenchment, resulting in historical discontinuities.

Both operas were born of a spirit of respect for the worth of all human beings, which by definition is irrespective of gender, social class, race or religion.  The Goldoni behind Le Donne Vendicate is representative of – whilst also being influential on – that aspect of his era.  In his oeuvre, morality rests not in time-honoured hierarchies, mores and tenets, but in a psychologically profounder sense of what is just, good and wise.  Meanwhile, the hero of Braccioli’s Orlando is Astolfo, whose blend of mildness and courage enable the overcoming of all manner of obstacles.  Maybe we should be rediscovering early operas more frequently, for the shock of the old to inform the new.

The third opera reviewed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria for Seen And Heard International is Margherita d’Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) with libretto by Felice Romani (1788-1865).  See review here.

S&HI Margherita d'Anjou

Image credits:

Photo of Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate, courtesy of Festival della Valle d’Itria.

Photos of the town of Martina Franca (home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria) by the author. All rights reserved.

Images of reviews of Le Donne Vendicate, Orlando Furioso and Margherita d’Anjou from Seen And Heard International website.




Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’ Hébé at the Royal College of Music

Rameau’s opera-ballet, Les Fêtes d’ Hébé, has just been performed at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre, on 5 and 6 April.  This is the UK premiere of the work, nearly three-hundred years after its opening at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1739.  The production was the result of a three-year collaboration between the Académie de l’ Opéra de Paris, les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and the Royal College of Music.  Let’s hope the cooperation among these artistic centres of excellence will continue post-Brexit.

Despite Rameau’s importance in the history of music, few of his operas have been performed in the UK.  A complete and a partial recording of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé by, respectively, Les Arts Florissants (1997) and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (1977) received high praise, but the work was never staged here.  Why?  Two characteristics of French opera of this period will have been major factors: its particular mixture of singing and ballet; and its relative lack of drama and character development, when compared to the work of a contemporary such as Handel.

The music – with its arias, choral pieces and orchestration of extraordinary beauty and richness – deserves to be brought to the attention of the British public.  The work is of deep interest also in that it provides intriguing context for that of subsequent composers, including Mozart.  Hopefully we won’t have to wait long for the future staging of more of Rameau’s operas.

Thomas Lebrun – director, set designer and choreographer – has opted for a decidedly modern production.  The sets are stylised – they work in their own right, and could do without the distracting video-projected backgrounds.  The three sections of the opera-ballet are separated by colour, underlining Rameau’s tenuous linking of them by means of a light framing device; at the same time, Lebrun uses ballet to bring out every connecting thread to great effect.  The dancers are a marvel of energy and lightness – the only critique is to the costume designer, who could have been more flattering to them.  Among the singers, Laure Poissonnier as Cupid, Adriana Gonzales as Sappho and Iphise, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Hymas and Tyrtaeus, stood out for their sumptuous voices, with remarkable command over their vocal ranges and with convincing acting.  The choral singers revealed by their performance why Rameau was so widely admired by contemporaries for his mastery of harmony.  The orchestra could not have been under a better baton: Jonathan Williams is one of the top Rameau experts in the country – and it showed.  The only regret is that Les Fêtes d’ Hébé has been performed in London for only two nights – unsurprisingly, it was sold out.  Let’s hope that those unable to obtain tickets won’t have to wait too many years for a revival of this production.

Links to this and others’ reviews of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé can be found on The Opera

Review of Les Fetes d' Hebe on Opera Critic

Image credits:

Royal College of Music, London, photo by David Iliff. Reproduced under CC License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Paris Opera full frontal architecture, photo by Peter Rivera.  Reproduced under CC License: BY 2.0 (

Portrait of Jean-Philippe Rameau, attributed to Jacques Aved. Photographer unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Title page of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of‘s coverage of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé is from its website.