Francesca di Foix delights

5 Nov

Just occasionally, I come across an opera that I want to shout about – inspiring one of those “where have you been all my life” feelings – and in a performance that I found one of the happiest evenings I’ve had for some time.  The latest is Donizetti’s Francesca di Foix, which I saw at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on 4th November.  I have the Opera Rara recording and played it a while ago while doing other things.  It struck as amiable Donizetti without being particularly special.  This performance made me think quite a lot better of it than that.

It has a very diverting plot – one of those rare operas that has absolutely no love interest and centres round a practical joke.  The jealous Count keeps his wife, Francesca, locked up and has given out that she is ugly and deformed to keep her away from the lecherous king.  The King and his friend the Duke plot with the page Edmond to release her.  She arrives in disguise and is then recognised by her husband who, having given out that she is ugly, cannot claim her as his wife.  It is only after a tournament when the King offers to marry her to the Duke that the Count finally admits that Francesca is his wife.  She sings a virtuoso final aria claiming a victory for women everywhere.

So it’s an amiable practical joke which owes quite a lot to Rossini’s one-acters.     It doesn’t have any particularly stand out arias (though one or two pretty attractive ones) but it does have a group of really delightful, witty duets and trios that exploit the comic potential of the plot – that for the Countess, Count and King as the Count recognises his wife is a complete joy.   They’re charming, witty and a delight to listen to.  It’s hard to think of a less sentimental or malicious comedy than this very happy, tolerant piece.  It shows the same sense of timing and joy as the best bits of Pasquale and Elisir (for which Donizetti took a march from here to open Act II).  At 80 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the slight sadness is that this is a rotten length for an opera, these days and, probably, it’s just a bit slight for any of the major companies to take it on.

So many, many thanks to the Guildhall for staging it and giving us the opportunity to see it in the flesh.  It was given a very busy, pretty well-drilled staging by Stephen Barlow.  He’s updated it and set it in the Valois fashion house where the King is obviously the inspirational designer and the other aristocrats are the managers and salesmen.  Their event, apparently, is taking fashion back to 1523, allowing  some delightfully silly costumes mixing 16th and 21st century fashion.  The tournament is a tennis match.  Barlow peoples this with a chorus of wealthy buyers and design nuts.  The men change into tennis whites for the tournament.  In that guise, they have very silly, very wittily choreographed movements and it was a shame that this chorus couldn’t quite deliver them with the straight-faced precision that they needed.  In the first scene there is a little too much going on, but perhaps this also disguises the fact that the opera takes a little while to get going. Barlow has huge fun with the duets and trios and I found I was spending much of the evening with a broad smile on my face, enjoying the situations, the music and the direction.  Perhaps there is a slightly more sentimental aspect to the piece than he found, but I rather doubt it.

I saw the first of two casts.  It’s probably asking too much for the students at the Guildhall to have the same levels of refinement and artistry of more experienced artists or, indeed to feel completely comfortable with this sort of music.  They had more than a brave stab at it.  As Francesca, Anna Gillingham had all the notes and fearless coloratura.  She struck me as having a strong sense of style as well and a very attractive, witty personality.  All she needs is a little more star quality and charisma.  As the Count, Szymon Wach had a lovely line in bewildered stupidity and displayed a promising young bass even though he has the least interesting music to sing.

I greatly admired Piran Legg’s voice and singing as the King.  He has that rather gentle baritone that works nicely in this sort of work – think Bruscantini and Corbelli – and I think he’s someone to watch.  Joshua Owen Mills sang the Duke – the unattached tenor role.  He has one of the best arias – a lovely cavatina towards the end.  He has a really lovely tenor that has the warmth to make him a lovely Nemorino or Ernesto – he needs greater freedom and the tone sounds constricted under pressure – but there was promise here.  Elizabeth Desbruslais as Edmondo, similarly, displayed a lovely mezzo that, in principle, sounds just right for bel canto but here needed more power and freedom.

Dominic Wheeler conducted stylishly and the chorus sang enthusiastically.

I will treasure happy memories of this piece and will listen to it again more closely.  It would be great if one of the Festivals were to have a go at it – it’s an intimate piece and would well at Glyndebourne or at Opera North.  Now, since the Guildhall has been having a go at rare Donizetti recently, it would be good to have more – what about Campanello or Convenienze e inconvenienze teatrali?

It was preceded by Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue.  It’s not really an opera – rather an oratorio or series of scenes that can’t help being more than a piece of Victorian religiosity, albeit with some attractive music.  Barlow staged it as such – in a 19th century French villa.  It worked, looking good and elegant, but didn’t avoid the sentimentality.  Lauren Fagan sang strongly and idiomatically as Lia, Gerard Schneider showed a strong, virile tenor as the son and Joseph Padfield struck me as needing an ounce or two more weight as the father.
Wheeler’s conducting brought out the beauties of the score and the orchestra sounded a bit more comfortable in this than in the Donizetti.

This was one of the most enjoyable evenings at the opera  that I’ve had in ages.

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