On the 2015 production of Madama Butterfly by the Royal Opera House

April 9, 2015

Went to see it this afternoon. This review is by a new guest author Patrick Murray

Set at the end of the Japanese period of isolation Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a tragic tale, based on a true story, of an innocent young Geisha, Butterfly, who renounces her culture, religion and family to marry an American sailor, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. He abandons her, returning several years later with an American wife in tow. All this time Butterfly believes he will come back to her and raises their son. This is not to be. Forced to give up her son to the new American wife, she kills herself “to die with honour” rather than live without it.

Speaking of living without honour, where to start with Mr Pinkerton? He is a shallow, ignorant, arrogant man who respects nothing important. He does not respect Butterfly’s culture and he does not respect love. This is portrait of a man who is little more than a moral vacuum. However he does not marry her out of malice, but because he believes love is about joy and happiness and that this is a good intervention in Butterfly’s life, despite repeated warnings from his friend. Needless to say, Pinkerton is proven drastically wrong. His final moment of shameful dishonour is when, upon his return to Japan, he realises what he has done and stricken with guilt he flees as he cannot bring himself to face his former wife. It is left to others to clear up the mess he has made.

The production from the Royal Opera House was quite simply magnificent. Puccini’s rich, beautiful music was played brilliantly, from the dramatic crescendos to the tender moments of hope and heartbreak. The cast was superb. Kristine Opolais as Butterfly was incredible in particular, but it feels wrong to single out any particular individual.

It is not hard to miss the symbolism that Puccini is going for here. The final scene of her plunging a dagger into her chest as her son waves a miniature American flag whilst the cherry blossom falls from a tree speaks to that. In truth it is such an incendiary opera that one wonders whether Puccini would have prosecuted for incitement or radicalisation if he composed it today!

My only regret is that this was the final performance with Opolais so I can’t see it again. Just magnificent – 5 stars from me!

Patrick Murray


On ‘Letters Live’

April 4, 2015

Dear friends,

I have to write very briefly about the best evening of entertainment I’ve had in my life so far.

Completely by chance, and I am afraid to say, news of the fire in Holborn, I found out about the performance of ‘Letters Live’ in Freemasons Hall.

I saw Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Tom Hiddleston, Kylie Minogue, Matt Berry, to name a few. All about 3 metres away from me. But being starstruck didn’t last very long. It was the most intimate venue and they read the most intimate letters – by the second act, I felt so close to every single person there. Letters they read varied from very funny, such as a letter from Elvis Presley to Nixon, to heart-breaking, such as a letter written by a man, who was just sold to slavery, to his wife. Benedict Cumberbatch read Kurt Cobain’s last letter in such a way that no one in the audience remained tearless.

World class performers, an excellent collection of letters, almost a family atmosphere all made this an evening I will never ever forget. I was reminded of how precious letters are. I write some to my friend in Germany but I absolutely must write more.

Can’t write anymore now, I am far far too excited!


On ‘Andrea Chenier’ by the Royal Opera House

February 7, 2015

‘Revolution devours its children’ – sings Gerard, a former servant, now a celebrated citizen amidst a new era during the French revolution. There are no happy endings, apart from death in unity and death for love and ideas.

This opera by Umberto Giordano is as fast-paced, feverish and incendiary as the times of the French revolution its set in. It hasn’t been produced here for 30 years because the best-class singers who can do it justice only come once in a generation. Luckily for us, this time is now and this singer is Jonas Kaufmann – his performance was out of this world, absolutely the best it could be. In fact every one is this opera was great- Zeljko Lucic, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Elena Zilio – the cast was simply perfect. However, just singing praises is boring – to the story!

This story could not be more relevant. Chenier is being condemned and killed for his satirical poems about the French Revolution. Just this year the world was terrified by the killings of cartoonists in France – murdered for their satire. There is nothing new under the sun.

The past few years we’ve been observing revolutions all over Middle East. The West got very excited, the fight for democracy, etc. However, revolutions lead to civil wars, civil wars lead to terror, neighbours, friends, killing each other. Whoever wins isn’t necessarily going to be merciful and even if they are, they have blood of thousands on their hands. Chenier starts by supporting the revolution but after seeing its terrors, he changes his mind. What matters in the end is love. Revolution has not freed Gerard either, his passion in the end was stronger – ‘it is a mere change of masters.’ While in this context he means the master – aristocracy to the master – passion, I interpret it further to be a transition from the master – aristocracy to the master – the mob. It is easy to fall out of their favour, anyone can be ‘the enemy of the state’, this ‘justice’ is also cruel to those who don’t agree with the current masters. Gerard calls the mob ‘blood-thirsty villains’. Indeed they are scary in the opera, they can and will devour all on their way: poets, lovers, mothers.

Ultimately, however, this is a love story. Revolution may be glorious and epic but ‘the flame that lights the universe is love.’ I think with everything that’s going on the world, this can be a good lesson to us all.

On ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ by the Royal Opera House.

January 3, 2015

Last night I saw ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ in the Royal Opera House. I’ve been waiting for this opera for ages as it was my chance to see Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a Russian baritone who I absolutely adore. My whole family in Russia pretty much worship him and there is a real cult of his personality that I grew up with. Hvorostovsky’s fame is not only due to his amazing opera achievements but also his performances of Russian traditional songs and old war songs. Big live concerts on national television, concerts on the Red Square or any kind of family celebrations – he is there, singing and being admired by the whole nation. Needless to say I was very excited. Immediately he had a very strong presence on stage. There could be no mistake of who he is. Well, this time he was Renato, Riccardo’s advisor and a loyal friend. Well, that is until he murders him (oops, spoilers). In short, I was not disappointed in the slightest and left really happy for having seen a legend live.

As for the opera itself, it was very enjoyable. It follows the standard structure: love that is not to be, friendship that is not to last, hope for happiness, then betrayal and death. That has been a formula for centuries and it works. Here the director Kathrina Thoma has added some extras, such as moving statues. While that was awesome in ‘Blink’, Doctor Who, I didn’t entirely get it there. Other additions didn’t spoil the opera but did not enhance it either.

Overall, I will recommend seeing it. There are a few performances left in January. I bought my ticket for 12 pounds, which lacked a seat. This brings me to my conclusion: a strong cast and wonderful music by Verdi make this opera worth standing for.

On ‘Mr Turner’

November 8, 2014

I am a big fan of Turner’s work. Every time I am in the National Gallery I rush to see his paintings because of the profound impact they have on me. His colours, his storms make me feel like no other, I would say that he is an equal to Ivazovskiy (a huge compliment for a Russian). I wanted to see this movie because I wanted to find out more about the artist, how and why he painted, what drove him, what inspired him. I hoped to see his work again and understand it better. I fear that this movie did not offer me such a privilege.

I do have to say good things about it first. It is visually stunning. A movie about masterpieces has to be a masterpiece itself and Mike Leigh absolutely delivered on that. Some scenes feel like stepping in Turner’s paintings and my God, it is beautiful.

Secondly, acting. Timothy Spall’s acting was superb. The ability to express a vast range of emotions with just growling is very impressive. However, I assume this is not the first review you read, so you already know all that.

My impressions of the movie are rather conflicted. I did not want to see how Turner was living a life of luxury with aristocracy, being admired and celebrated. I did not want to know that he was a part of the establishment to such a great degree. While I do not imagine my favourite artists to be lovely people, seeing him portrayed like, frankly, a bastard was upsetting. Yes, there was drama, the death of his adoring father, obviously failed marriage, him disowning his children but somehow it was not at all obvious how any of it influenced his work. He came across like a commercial artist, with little regard for other people, not a person who lives to paint, has to express some point of view or has an extraordinary life. He watches fellow artists being treated appallingly because they don’t conform with the mainstream and just stands there, it does not appear to upset him. It is a story of his life; his art is just a beautiful background. The movie touched on some potentially interesting parts of his life that could aid the understanding of his work but did not really explore them. It is a good quality relationship drama and if I judged it purely on this basis I would write a better review.

I do not, however, want to put anyone off from seeing this movie. It is beautiful, interesting and thought-provoking. The only reason why I am not jumping with excitement and giving it 5 stars is my personal pre-conceived idea of a man that was somewhat shattered. Perhaps that what makes the movie wonderful, in a painful way. They say, you should never meet your heroes but I say that one should always watch movies about your heroes, however confusing the outcome might be. I will give it 4 stars and recommend as an interesting movie to get on DVD.


November 6, 2014

Can’t sleep without closing my eyes

Can’t catch this moment right now

As I try to catch it, it dies

The memory is all it will allow

Do I always live in the past?

Before I catch ‘now’, it is dead

And when I slept at long last

How many ‘nows’ died and bled?

What waste, what a terrible shame

And no one will bring them back

The moments I want to re-claim

Are just coffins packed in a stack

If ‘now’ dies before we know it exists

We don’t live, we are past in the mist

Olga Ivannikova


On Glyndebourne’s production of Rinaldo

August 26, 2014

On 24th June I was invited to see Handel’s opera – Rinaldo. Robert Carsen’s production was set in a school, inside the imagination of a school boy Rinaldo, played by Ieston Davies, who was (I can’t wait to write it) – absolutely fantastic. A nasty teacher (Karina Gauvin) made him write an essay about the Crusades and he imagines himself as a noble hero, who is on a quest to save the girl he loves (Christina Landshamer) and fight evil along the way.

First impressions: so many countertenors, basically men singing really high. At first, it is a little funny, you look around to see if anybody else finds it funny. Then as you adjust to the sound, it makes absolute sense for it to be sang this way – afterall it is about very young boys. By the third act, when Goffredo (played by the amazing Tim Mead) sings his aria – I realised that it might be the most beutiful thing I’ve ever heard. To ears spoiled by great opera, when world-class singing is taken as standard, Rinaldo, in my opinion, opens one’s mind to appreciating sound in a new way and this, more than anything else, makes it so wonderful.

Second impressions: frankly, the whole thing is ridiculous. The plot itself is a little underdeveloped, blurry and awkward – perfectly fitting a young boy’s imagination. The production celebrates this ridiculousness and enhances it to the extreme. There isn’t a moment without amusement, ‘knights’ on bicycles going up in the air, crazy-dressed magicians telling boys the way to combat hell is to wear dresses, the final battle being fought in some sort of wierd football dance routine and so on. Although very funny, at times, the awkawardness is a little uncomfortable. Overall, however, everything in that opera being over-the-top is what makes it so memorable and enjoyable. In general I am a big fan of opera not taking itself too seriously and this was a very successful culmination of the ability to laugh at oneself.

Final impressions: as in the end of Harry Potter books – ‘all was well’. Good wins over evil, lovers get reunited to live happily ever after, there is even freedom and love for the bad guys in the end. This opera eulogises dreaming and hoping; in our busy practical day-to-day world, valuing this is what needed to keep humanity human. I congratulate everyone involved on this successful unique production that I will certainly never forget, and if I was doing the star system (do I? My review structures are a bit confused) I would happily give it all 5 stars.

Note: This was my first time in Glyndebourne and it was the most fantastic experience. Also I got the opportunity to chat to most of the cast and Danielle de Niese (yay) so to show off my successful fangirling, here is a picture of their autographs.


On the Russian National Orchestra at Stowe

May 24, 2014

On the Russian National Orchestra at Stowe

2014 heralds the year of Anglo-Russian Culture and I had the huge privilege of celebrating it with my family at Stowe. First of all, what a fantastic venue that is! Having lived in Oxford, I thought I saw it all but both the house and grounds of Stowe are completely out of this world and breathtaking.

Anyway, to the concert. It started by a speech from Harold Goodall CBE. He pointed out the strong cultural relationships between Russia and England throughout history and praised the importance and brilliance of Russian composers. It was a very positive speech and as a Russian living in the UK, given all that’s going on, I was extremely happy and grateful to hear it.

The Russian National Orchestra have impressed me more than I thought it was possible to – their precision, depth and character made me feel the very familiar Tchaikovsky and Glinka in a new, more profound way. Michaev van Baker said “You could be forgiven for thinking the RNO exists mainly to give classical music critics the chance to outdo each other with superlatives.” Indeed, the only thing I can add to much praise and love that they usually receive is that their first act was the most powerful musical experience I’ve had in years.

The second act was accompanied by the singing of Lesley Garrett and was very enterntainy in contrast to intense and dramatic first act. The conductor Carlo Ponti was brilliant and I think it’s the first time I refer to any conductor as charming. I was charmed.

The point of the concert was to ‘allow the language of music to bring together nations from across the world’. For example, when the Russian Orchestra accompanied the piano concerto by the great English young talent, Craig Geene and conducted by Italian-American conductor, Carlo Ponti – seeing it all work so beautifully and naturally warmed my heart and gave me hope for a more peaceful tomorrow. Thank you to all involved!

Quick review of my 2013 – 2014 opera season

May 13, 2014
  1. It started gloriously with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met. It had pretty much a dream cast: Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, Piotr Beczala as Lensky and Mariusz Kwiecen as Onegin. You can read more about my praise here
  1. Shostokovich’s The Nose was certainly the most bizzare opera I’ve seen so far. In the end of the opera one of the singers exclaimed: ‘who would write such a thing? This story is implausible!’ It was a good political opera and being a fan of Gogol does help a lot in understanding it. Read more
  1. Verdi’s Falstaff was exactly what you want Falstaff to be – light (well, in one sense of the word), quick and hilarious. Ambarogio Maestri is completely fantastic as Falstaff. He is coming to Covent Garden in 2015 in a different production of Falstaff and I strongly recommend going to see him – it’s a delightful unforgettable experience – buy here
  1. Wagner’s Parsifal from Covent Garden was next – the very opposite of Falstaff – long, difficult and depressing. ‘Death, to die is the only mercy’, etc. read my review of it here  I do need to see more Wagner next season to get to grips with it because at the moment I feel very lost.
  1. After that I travelled home to Russia to see mainly my family but also Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Astrakhan State Theatre of Opera and Ballet. There is little need to describe how fantastic and tragic that opera is and I simply can’t wait to see it again!
  1. Next I saw Dvorak’s Rusalka and I took a break from writing reviews at the stage. I wasn’t sure what to write because Renee Flemming is universally loved as a great opera star yet I didn’t like her at all as Rusalka in this production. I think that it’s poor taste to write something bad about someone as talented (particularly when you don’t know what it is exactly you don’t like) just after their show so I chose not to. I do regret not giving a special mention to Dolora Zajiick who was the most brilliant and funny Jezibaba. I also missed the chance to praise my all-time favourite tenor – Piotr Beczala, who was, of course, a great Prince.
  1. Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden was absolutely wonderful. It’s no secret that I adore Mariusz Kweicen so to see him in a title role was a real treat. Alex Esposito was a great Leporello. However it was Elizabeth Watts as Zerlina and Dawid Kimberg as Masetto who really stole the show. Their acting skills were of the highest quality and it was a real joy seeing them on stage. I am mainly writing this to remind myself to see any future productions with them and recommend them to others as brilliant young singers.
  1. Puccini’s La Boheme from the Met this year was really really good. I just came back from Paris and walked around the Latin Quarter so I had even stronger feelings for the atmosphere this opera creates. This as well as Eugene Onegin, I think are best operas for introducing people to the genre as it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo was very good indeed, interestingly he was trained for this role by Pavarotti himself. Kristine Opolais sang Mimi very well, particularly considering that she only found out that she had to step in for the role only a few hours before the performance. Do read this story here. The most enjoyable parts were the ones with Susanna Phillips playing Musetta. As well as being a fantastic singer she is such a great actress, absolutely hilarious but is also very capable of deep dramatic acting. She looked like she had so much fun performing and her enthusiasm was enthralling.
  1. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long to see Susanna Phillips again as just 3 weeks later she starred in Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. Again, I got to admire her great talent and gained new respect and love for her. It was also lovely to see James Levine back as the Met’s conductor. Overall, this was the most easy and enjoyable opera I’ve seen so far – a fantastic way for me to end the season!
  2. Not quite the end. Tickets for Manon by the Royal Opera House became available and it was incredible. Kristine Opolais was superb. The end of the season was more dramatic and tearful than expected!

What a fantastic season this was! Viva l’opera!

On the Royal Opera’s production of Parsifal

December 19, 2013

Yesterday was my first visit to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and it was definitely one I won’t forget.

It was also my first Wagner opera, an important event in one’s life I think.

The music was absolutely incredible. It was a real honour to see Antonio Pappano live – he is both a genius conductor and a fantastic music director. If anyone should be pointed out as the star of the show, without a doubt, it should be him.

Before going I was warned that Parsifal can ‘put me off opera for life’. Luckily it didn’t but it was not an easy relaxing experience. The story is really complicated, full of religious symbols and metaphors. From what I understand the hero of the story is Parsifal, who doesn’t succumb to Kundry’s seductions and remains pure and innocent to heal the king with the Spear (a sacred relic that he then returns to the Holy Grail community). There is ‘redemption to the redeemer.’ Wagner explores a lot of deep concepts and questions humanity has always asked and answers them with compassion – a very good message indeed.

This was Wagner’s last opera and it was full of suffering, guilt, pain and regret. Last week I saw Verdi’s last opera – Falstaff and it was a complete opposite. The clear message was that life is to be enjoyed in all its forms, with laughter, food, sex and silliness. Wagner, in the end presented life as torturous: ‘death, to die, is the only mercy.’ Also sex is very bad according to this opera – it brings all sorts of demons, torment and unhappiness. Interestingly, Falstaff also concluded that everyone in the world is a fool but it’s ok as long as he who laughs, laughs last. Parsifal, as the main hero was also a ‘pure fool’ and he saves the day. I would rather be Verdi’s fool than Wagner’s – it seems a lot more fun. Maybe in 5 years time when I am 30, I will go see Parsifal again and get it a lot more but not for now, dear reader, I am sorry to admit that I enjoy my flaws as a human being and am not ready for the quest for redemption. Yet.

I very much enjoyed the opera though – the actors were absolutely amazing. To sing such complicated arias for nearly 6 hours must require Olympic-level fitness and talent. The whole cast was flawless and it’s difficult to pick anyone out. Since it was an extremely male-dominated opera, I guess I will mention Angela Denoke, who was stunning as Kundry and I would love to see whatever she does in the future.

The production was very interesting. Everyone was in modern dress. So the knights of the Grail all wore the same grey suits. Strangely it worked and provided a more effective image of a secretive sacred order than perhaps if they were in fancy dress. The set was incredibly simplistic, even futuristic. I think this added to the idea of the timelessness of the message and its applicability in any setting. The surprise of the production was that Grail was indeed Christ himself and when he appeared as a young, weak, mostly naked boy – it was a powerful, if distressing, image indeed.

Overall, I would give the production 5 stars and applaud its huge success. It’s my problem that I don’t quite get Wagner yet but to see so many talented people presenting such a beautiful opera in a beautiful building was a real privilege.