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ETO’s Patience

11 Mar

Patience may not be the best known of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but it’s near the top of my list of favourites and it was great to see that English Touring Opera had chosen it as their first ever G&S piece.  I caught its second performance at the Hackney Empire on 10th March.

It’s an interesting piece in their canon.  It’s probably the most directly satirical of a particular idea.  It’s also one of the few without an obvious romantic couple and, for that reason, may be probably Gilbert’s finest libretto.  You don’t have to have seen Topsy Turvy to suspect that he probably had a deep cynicism about romantic love and this, piece, with barely a sympathetic character in it enable him to poke fun at ideas, at pomposity at self-indulgence – which is what he did best.

I’m very, very fond of Sullivan’s score.  There’s a lot of really beautiful music here: from the simply gorgeous opening interesting to that rather gorgeous sextet, I hear the soft note of the echoing voice, and the teasing Long years ago, it’s all glorious stuff.  Perhaps, however, it shows more than most the way in which Sullivan undermines Gilbert’s satire by producing music that is absolutely serious.  I find this tension one of the most interesting things about their partnership.

This was a very good performance of it, indeed.  It was a joy to read Timothy Burkes’s appreciation of the score in his programme note.  He conducted it with love, perhaps with a slightly gentler edge to it than, say, Mackerras or even Isidore Godfrey for the old D’Oyly Carte, but the music sounded as good as it should.

And the cast was excellent.  I hugely enjoyed Lauren Zolezzi’s Patience.  As the one individual with anything like common sense, she caught the intelligence of the character and sang really well: a lovely light soprano who can sing words with taste and spirit – probably the best Patience that I’ve heard.  Bradley Travis played Bunthorne as the heartless, self-indulgent popinjay that he is andmade the most of his arias.  Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor gave one of the best acting performances that I’ve in Gilbert and Sullivan. His way with the dialogue was incredibly assured and he gave an object lesson in how to make intelligible and funny without guying it.  I was slightly less taken by his voice – there’s a bit of work to be done there.

Valerie Reid made an excellent Lady Jane – notably older than the other ladies, with the right wry sense of humour and she had a nice way with her double bass in Silvered is the raven hair – is there a better example of Sullivan ignoring the sheer nastiness of Gilbert’s text?  Gaynor Keeble was a strong Lady Angela, seconded admirably by Suzanne Fischer as Saphir (Ella was cut – no great loss).

Andrew Slater was as good as you’d hope as Colonel Calverley – managing the two patter songs really well and maintaining just the right element of bemused outsrage.  Aled Hall didn’t make as much of the Duke as he could have done and I’ve heard more lyrical singing.  Chorus and orchestra were excellent and this was a really excellent, loving, musical performance.

Liam Steel directed.  It was a firmly traditional production: set in that Victorian/aesthetic/pre-Raphaelite look that, doubtless, Gilbert intended.  I enjoyed the alert direction of the dialogue and the words (even if there were rather more glitches about those than you’d expect at this performance).  There were lots of deft touches (Patience seemed the only person able to lift anything) and there was pelnty of fun with flowers.  This was a production which would not upset anyone who thought that D’Oyly Carte, c. 1960 was the acme of perfection.  And, on its own terms it was really enjoyable.  I was smiling throughout and enjoying the opportunity to see the opera again.

And yet I had doubts.  If you’d never seen G&S before, would you think that this was an outstanding example of their wit and satire?  Did the business and moves not look a bit like what you’d get from a very good school or amateur performance?  There are enough example of pretension and fatuousness in our time for this piece to have much greater resonance than it did here.  You can also, I think, be a bit more outrageous with You hold yourself like this. I enjoyed it because I love the piece and, I suspect, there are enough people  who feel the same way for this to be a success.  But don’t you need a bit more; a bit more flair and brilliance to persuade people that this isn’t a museum piece of limited interest.  I was sitting next to a ten or eleven year old boy with his parents.  I really wondered if there was enough there to engage him  (I don’t think there was).  A more modern approach might have been even more fun.

That’s the only cavil.  On its own terms, it’s a lovely, intelligent, musically delightful performance. Anyone who enjoys G&S, let alone Patience, will love it and I do hope ETO decide to do some more.  We’re crying out for Iolanthe.







Iphigenia in Crawley

6 May

English Touring Opera’s Iphigénie en Tauride got some excellent reviews, at least one – from the Guardian – giving it five stars and, since opportunities to see the piece don’t come round that often, I went over to Crawley to see it when they performed it at The Hawth on 5th May.

You don’t really associate Crawley with Gluck, but the auditorium is a lovely size for this sort of opera and the staff are among the friendliest I’ve come across – in how many other theatres do they ask you if you’ve enjoyed the show and wish you goodnight afterwards?

And the theatre was very respectably filled: the stalls were, pretty much, packed and a good many had been to see Don Giovanni the night before while a number of others, like me, had clearly travelled to see the opera.  From that point of view, it’s very conveniently placed for both London and the South East.

I admire Gluck’s operas but find it hard to love them.  There is powerful, affecting music.  The declamations and the arias are beautifully written, the dilemmas well expressed.  But I always find a distance, making it hard to sympathise with the characters.  There have been times when I’ve felt him speak directly to me: I was lucky enough to hear Janet Baker’s Alceste and still remember the way her singing of Divinités du Styx hit you where it hurt with its sheer power.  And there were marvellous moments in Glyndebourne’s Iphigénie en Aulide but, generally, I find him detached – even the ROH’s last production of this opera with Keenlyside didn’t grab me.  And its Orfeo was as memorable for its visual effects as for its drama.  Here, I feel that there’s almost something comic about the way in which Orestes and Pylades vie to be sacrificed, while the recognition scene seems curiously unmoving.  I admire, I don’t get involved.

I thought that it was given a good, but not great performance here.  The set is excellent –  grey concrete towers with a platform stretching across a brightly lit gap.  It looks good and catches the lowering gloom of the temple.  The priestesses are in heavy dresses, bloodstained from the human sacrifices.  Thoas and his men are barbaric.  The story is told clearly and there  a mixture of restraint about the production while recognising the violence of the opera.  You’re not distracted by business

Martin André conducted idiomatically.  He got the violence of the dances, the limpid beauty of so many of the phrases, those gorgeous oboes, and kept the opera moving securely.  The orchestra played really well for him and Gluck’s instrumental commentary and that wonderful way he has of melting into arias came across superbly.

The singers were good.  I thought Catherine Carby made a dignified, intelligent Iphigénie.  She sang securely, confidently – a lovely, clear, pure tone.  What I missed was the full level of despair and the ability to pierce your heart that great Gluck singing should achieve.  Grant Doyle was Oreste, singing vigorously, confidently but not movingly.  You sensed some, but not all of the desperation of a man in thrall to the Furies.  As Pyalde, John-Colyn Gyeantey used what struck me as a rather small, dry voice very successfully.  His caught the limpid style Gluck needs, phrased really expressively and he acted  well.  I just didn’t quite believe the intensity of the bond between the two men.

As Thoas, Craig Smith sounded pretty rough.  The lesser priestesses were good.  Diana was sung by a child – innocence yes, but perhaps it needs more sheer power and brilliance.  The chorus was really excellent, singing with conviction and power.

This was a very strong, honest and successful performance.  Anyone keen on or interested in Gluck should try to get to it.  It lacked, for me, the last element of intensity and emotion that the opera needs if it’s to be the sort of experience that Gluckians claim for it.  ETO are doing some pretty outstanding work at the moment.

Pia di Tolomei – not quite a masterpiece

11 Mar

After last year’s Il furioso nell’ Isola di San Domingo, English Touring Opera moved to another Donizetti rarity – Pia de’ Tolomei. It’s one of his late Italian operas, written for Venice to a libretto by Cammarano and based, rather loosely, on a passage in Dante. I went over to Hackney on 10th March to see the UK stage premiere.

It’s another Guelphs/Ghibellines sort of story. Pia’s family are Guelphs, but to try to achieve peace, she has been married to the Ghibelline, Nello. His brother, Ghino, is in love with her but takes advantage of an intercepted letter, which seems to show that she is seeing another man, to persuade Nello that she’s unfaithful. In fact, the letter is from her brother, Rodrigo, whom she is helping escape from her husband’s dungeon. Got it so far?

The first act sets up the position in a series of entrance arias and cabalettas leading to a finale where Rodrigo meets Pia, escapes through a secret passage and Nello is only just stopped from killing Pia and ending the opera an hour early.  I can understand why the Venetians were a bit disappointed with this: it doesn’t have quite the sense of scale or excitement that, say, that for Il furioso has, let alone, Act II of Lucia or Act III of Favorita.  Mind you, the duet for Pia and Rodrigo is gorgeous and the ensuing trio and stretta are perfectly good.

In the second act, the mistake is unravelled but not before Nello has been defeated in battle and had Pia poisoned – she dies urging peace.  There’s a rather good Verdian chorus opening the act for the Guelphs and then a splendid duet for Pia and Ghino where he repents.  He meets the defeated Nello with a group of hermits and confesses before he dies.  Nello dashes off to try to save Pia and arrives too late.  The final scene – a gorgeous aria for Pia turning into a duet for her and Nello – is the finest part of a good, solid, enjoyable evening.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole.  Donizetti originally wanted it to be a taut melodrama concentrating on the three leads.  When he arrived in Venice, however, he discovered that he had to expand the role of Rodrigo for a promising young mezzo (possibly the director’s mistress).  There are at least two excellent numbers for the role but nothing in the second act until the very end.  For Naples, he was required to have a happy ending and there were other bits and pieces of reworking.  This performance kept Rodrigo’s arias, added the chorus and kept the tragic ending. It’s still quite a short opera – less than two hours of music and at times it feels a bit perfunctory – and it’s hard to feel that it’s a forgotten masterpiece.

On the other hand, there is some super music: all of the arias of a high calibre and the duets in the second act for Pia and Ghino and Ghino and Nello are outstanding. As I’ve suggested, Donizetti saves his best for the last scene and the death of Pia and her reconciliation.  It’s touching, effective music and the characters are typically well drawn. It didn’t strike me as having anything of the originality of his later Paris operas but it’s still an effective and enjoyable evening, particularly for those of us who can’t really get enough Donizetti and wish people would explore things beyond Maria Stuarda.

James Conway’s production did the piece effectively enough. It was set on what looked like the set of one the other operas that they’re doing, turned round – all scaffold and rostra. Not exactly a delight for the eye, but it concentrated you on the characters and, since it didn’t look like anything in particular, worked fine for scenes set in the court, a dungeon and a swamp. Costumes were a bit of a mishmash but, again, did the trick. His direction was efficient, considerate of his actors and allowed you to follow the plot and the emotions. This isn’t meant to be patronising: clarity is an under-rated virtue in opera production and the obvious constraints of a low budget really didn’t spoil the enjoyment.  He played the opera for exactly what it was worth.

I thought there was some smashing singing. Elena Xanthoudakis was an outstanding Pia – she may not be Joan Sutherland, yet, but this was full bodied singing, accurate coloratura and she sang a really meltingly lovely last scene.  She can come back in Donizetti at any time.

Luciano Botelho as Ghino has a rather lighter tenor than you’d ideally like and the top notes were managed rather than easy – but they are quite high and there are a lot of them. He presented a credible figure. Grant Doyle was splendid as Nello – I think his voice suits Donizetti rather well and he conveyed the anger and mix of emotions really well. Catherine Carby was a very fine Rodrigo, making you wish that the role was longer. Piotr Lempa as a passing hermit, made a strong impression too.

John Andrews conducted – I thought he caught the style well and had the orchestra playing dramatically, alertly. The music came over well and the whole thing sounded like very high quality Donizetti indeed.

This, on paper, is just the sort of piece ETO shouldn’t be doing – a bel canto piece really needing singers and productions standards out of their range. In fact, they showed that it’s possible to make a convincing, enjoyable case for the opera without breaking their bank.  It’s well worth a visit.

Fascinating Furioso

14 Mar

Donizetti’s Il furioso all’ isola di San Domingo had its first professional performance in the UK in living memory at the Hackney Empire on 12th March by the wonderful English Touring Opera. The way in which this company mixes the popular with the worthwhile rarities is a source of constant amazement to me  Normally, this sort of piece would be the preserve of students or, possibly, an Opera Rara concert.  Here was a full staging with a really good cast.  My only query was over whether they needed to use the rather gawky title of The Wild Man of the West Indies.

It isn’t a neglected masterpiece, but the joy of the Donizetti revival is that it has shown how much worthwhile work there is that we don’t get to see and what a serious composer he is.  What struck me was the sense that Donizetti was still, 43 operas on, experimenting or at least approaching each with an open mind to their challenges. This wasn’t a simple soprano/tenor/baritone piece but a six hander of interesting characters in an opera about madness and reconciliation. Not everything in the opera works, but there is enough of value to make it well worth the occasional revival.

A particular joy was watching it blind, so to speak. I hadn’t looked up the plot beforehand nor tried to hear any of the music. Moreover, the lighting in the auditorium was too dim for me to read the plot so I was following it as it happened and I didn’t know how it would end. I recommend it to you, particularly now that surtitles help you follow the story. You appreciate the way in which Donizetti handled the work and how far it is not your cliched Italian semiseria opera.

It’s set on a plantation. A mad man is terrorising the neighbourhood. He turns out to be Cardenio who has run away from his wife after finding that she has been unfaithful. Donizetti and Ferretti (who did the libretto for Cenerentola) convey the madness really well and Cardenio strikes me as a plum role for a decent baritone – Michaels-Moore, Keenlyside, Lucic, Hvorsostovky would have a marvellous time with this. A woman is shipwrecked and there are absolutely no prizes for guessing that she turns out to be Cardenio’s wife, Eleonora. What I wasn’t particularly expecting was his brother to turn up also. He has two challenging arias and a fairly minimal role in the drama. You sense that he was added because (a) they needed a tenor in there somewhere and (b) to pad the story out. Of course everyone gets to meet for a rather splendid Act I finale (the sextet may not be quite Lucia standard, but it’s very good). In Act II the question is simply over whether or not the two will get back together or not. I won’t spoil the surprise.

The plum roles are Cardenio, Eleonora and Fernando, the brother, but there is a good second soprano role for Marcella, the plantation superviser’s daughter (Donna Bateman was excellent), for Bartolomeo, her father (Njabulu Madala – very promising and a good Donizetti style), and his slave Kaidama (Peter Braithwaite, likewise excellent in a Pedrillo sort of part).

Craig Smith sang Cardenio – sympathetic, intelligent, really stylish and making me wish that I’d seen his Boccanegra. Maybe a native Italian might have got more out of the language and a slightly more refulgent voice could have had more fun wiht the music.  It worked in the lovely intimacy of the Hackney Empire and he created a moving, believable figure with cultured, intelligent singing. Donizetti’s view of madness his is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s in King Lear – simply being unaware of where he is and who he is with, obsessing on the past.  As Elleonora, Sally Silver made an appealing penitent heroine, well in command of the music and managing the coloratura with aplomb. Nicholas Sherratt sounded great as Fernando – his slightly reedy voice works well in this repertory and he has the top notes, of which there are many. The chorus of 11 did an excellent job.

Jeremy Silver conducted flexibly, getting the idiom and catching the contrasts between the comedy and seriousness of this opera and getting them right. The ETO orchestra was really good.

Iqbal Khan directed. He took the text and the opera at face value and made me believe in the characters and their predicaments. He didn’t avoid some classic operatic poses and he avoided the rather uncomfortable political overtones of slavery in the West Indies, probably rightly.  Perhaps the set was a little too bare for the frequent scenes where people are watching others unseen or hiding or appearing unexpectedly. It did the trick, though and it was good to see the opera being taken seriously and intelligently.

Hand on heart, this doesn’t have any of those great, heart-stopping Donizetti numbers, the sheer brilliance of some of his comedies or the continuous quality of Lucia. But there’s a lot of very attractive stuff here and parts where Donizetti creates convincing, moving music. Thanks to ETO for doing it and I think it’s brilliant that they’re taking it round the country. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable engrossing evening and it’s worth the occasonal revival.  If you can catch it, go.

That last train problem (or why start Albert Herring at 7.45?)

5 Oct

When I go to the opera I usually have three options for getting home: the 22.47 which gets me in bed by midnight and is my preferred option; the 00.05 which involves hanging round Victoria, all the disadvantages of the last train and its habitués and a 01.45 bedtime (not great if you’re getting up four and a quarter hours later); and the 23.06 and a £25 taxi ride.  So, round about the 22.15 mark at the opera (and at times even earlier) I find myself distracted by the question: “is this worth missing the 22.47 for?”.  If the performance isn’t over by 22.25 then the chances of me getting that train are remote.  At least one of the advantages of online booking is that, with a bit of luck and care I can choose an aisle seat or one from which I can make an unobtrusive-ish exit should I decide that the train is more important than seeing the ending.  So, when in future I refer to the “22.47 test”, you will know what I mean.

This question arose particularly at English Touring Opera’s performance of Albert Herring at the Linbury on 4th October.  Herring is one of my very favourite operas and this was a very enjoyable performance of it.  But I’ve seen it several times before and, at 22.20, the threnody had just ended and I know the piece well enough to know that that it would be inconveniently after 22.25 before it finished.  I was sitting at the end of a row and I legged it.  What made me angry was that the performance began at 19.45.  Why?  Every sensible opera house begins at its shows at 19.30 at the latest (unless it’s something like Elektra – and I’m thinking of starting a campaign to have that starting them too) and, had ETO done so on this occasion, I would have had time to enjoy, applaud and be happy instead of feeling a nagging regret that I’d missed the last few minutes.  Why alienate your punters like this – particularly since you’ve long stopped visiting anywhere as metropolitan as Brighton these days.

Having got that off my chest, there was a huge amount to enjoy about this performance.  Let’s begin with the crisp, alert, witty, detailed conducting from Michael Rosewell, who pointed the chuckling and subversion of the strings and bassoon and the wistful richness of the clarinets to perfection.  The subtleties of the chamber score came over really well in this theatre.

There was also a lot to enjoy among in the performances.  Two struck me as outstanding.  Jennifer Rhys-Davies made a fearlessly sung and thoroughly fearsome Lady Billows, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night: I can’t say how it would work in a larger house but here she felt like the best Lady Billows that I’ve seen and got more words across than most others.  Charles Rice as Sid grabbed this gift of a role and sang it with a really fine nut-brown baritone and looked absolutely right as the local jack-the-lad.  He’s someone to watch.

The others were excellent, too. Rosie Aldridge was a younger than usual Florence in a trouser suit with a cigarette (Lady Billow’s reaction, “nasty masculine smell” pretty much confirmed the likely sexual orientation of this character), but here is a mezzo to reckon with.  Anna-Clare Monk was a sweetly sung, innocent Miss Wordsworth, Charles Johnston was a hearty vicar and Timothy Dawkins a very nicely understated Budd.

I was less sure about Clarissa Meek as Mrs Herring: she struck me as much better being, well, meek to the gentry than bullying Albert.

And then there was Mark Wilde as Albert who reminded you what a difficult role this can be.  In the early scenes he made hulking Albert, with a twitch and you wondered whether he was taking on too much the “bit simple, of course” description from the first scene.  He made quite a strong transformation after the wedding and sang the words well.  Equally, though, I wondered if he wasn’t just a bit old and experienced for the role.  The best Alberts that I’ve seen have tended to be the ones just beginning on their careers and not long out of music college.  Notwithstanding Pears, this is an role that needs something a bit less studied than, I felt, Wilde provided.

Christopher Rolls promised us “Another queer version of a Britten family”.  What we got was an alert, intelligent performance by a set of individuals and, Florence apart and unless I missed something in the last few minutes, nothing particularly Queer.  The set was a wooden frame, rather like a cage in which furniture was moved to suggest the different locations.  The costumes suggested a ’30s or, given Sid’s uniform in Act 3, perhaps ’40s setting.  What you got was a sense of community, of characters who had lived with each other and knew each other and who reacted intelligently to the words.  There were things that I missed from the classic Peter Hall Glyndebourne production but other ideas that worked just as well.  I thought, for example, that his very simple staging of the threnody worked far better than Hall’s more elaboartely choreographed version.

I know that some Serious People in the opera world hate this piece.  I can’t for the life of me think why: it’s one of the perfect comedies in the repertory with Britten as the outsider subverting and questioning their values and, above all, with a passion for youth and the future.  It’s a joyous piece and this was a lovely performance.  If only it had started 15 minutes earlier…