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Student J C Bach

26 Mar

Yet more archeology. The latest dig was at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 25th March when I saw University College Opera do J C Bach’s Amadis de Gaule. For geeks like me, it’s hard to thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to see works like this, like Lalo’s Fiesque or Offenbach’s Whittington which I’d never get to see elsewhere and which have had considerable rewards.  Now they come up with my first opportunity to see a piece by J C Bach: his only opera written for Paris.

This is an opera strongly in the French tradition with plenty of ballet music but all of it arising out of the action: so the release of prisoners at the end of Act II is a celebration for them not, as seems to be the case in Rameau, an opportunity for some random dancers to come on. It feels, as Charles Peebles noted in the programme, like a complete opera – a through composed piece with orchestra accompanying the recits and, while there are arias and duets, these aren’t set piece numbers but, again, take the drama forward. I admired the richness of the orchestration and a sound and idiom that really is not far from Mozart at all.

The story is simple, again, like most French opera.  The evil Arcalaus and his sister Arcabonne are seeking revenge on Amadis and his beloved Oriane.  Having captured them both, Arcabonne realises that Amadis is her unknown beloved and that she cannot kill him.  The two are released by a deus ex machina at the end.

Lully set the story originally as, I believe, did Gluck.  Handel wrote a version for London. The interest is in seeing how J C Bach set it. What struck me was he provides some good arias and duets which reflect the dramatic situation but which don’t express dilemmas well – Orianne and Amadis have a convincing row but it doesn’t suggest much of their original attraction. Arcabonne, the wicked sister, surely ought to hesitate more before giving way to Amadis. You don’t get much depth of character. Nor do you get any of those heart-stopping melodies or moments that you do in Gluck or Handel or the sheer understanding of character. Often in opera, the release of prisoners is one such moment – I didn’t get it here. The music to me sounded efficient but it didn’t leave me wanting to hear it again.  It wasn’t a great surprise that it lasted for only seven performances in Paris.

UCO did it with their customary enthusiasm that overcomes the limitations of student performances – the occasionally scrappy and ill-tuned orchestra, the rather scrawny souund of the chours and some of the soloists. You overlooked these because of the enthusiasm and commitment that everyone was showing. It helped that it was done in Clive Brown’s clear, straightforward translation – they understood and sang the words and we could here them How often do you get that these days?

The leading soloists were professionals. Katherine Blumenthal has sung here before and made a strong, conflicted, clear Arcabonne, Nicholas Morris as her brother, Arcalaus gave a strong villainous performance, though I felt that his voice sounded strained. As Amadis, Lawrence Olworth-Peter’s rather constricted tenor nevertheless put the arias across clearly. Alison Privet showed a lot of promise and style as Oriane. Edward Cottell, who has sung in a number of performances here was the best of the student performers as the jailer and a ghostly voice.

Charles Peebles conducted a big, bold performance that sounded stylish and dramatic. I enjoyed the music and am not sure it was his fault that it all felt rather the same after a while.

Jack Furness directed and deliberately and, I think, rightly, avoided a cute, charming 18th century production. This was set in modern dress among terrorists and with real danger. I felt that he caught the rawness and realsim of the emotions aptly, even if it looked a bit ugly and, at times, undercut the elements of optimism of the opera. I’d like to see more of his work.

Even if the opera and performance didn’t convince me completely, I was glad to have had the opportunity to make those judgements.  Classical Opera are doing J C Bach’s Adriano in Siria in April and I’m looking forward to that.

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Brave Lombardi

24 Mar

University College Opera earned my eternal gratitude in 2003 by introducing me to Hahn’s Ciboulette and, since then, I’ve enjoyed a range of eclectic pieces, many of which were way outside even my wish-list, of varying worth but considerable interest, performed with enthusiasm.  This year they went relatively, for them, mainstream by choosing Verdi’s I Lombardi.  You may be able to get it on CD and DVD if you want but, by my calculations, this was the first UK staging since 1976.  This was my first serious encounter with it.

After this performance (on 21st March at the Bloomsbury Theatre), my main feeling was that this is pretty minor Verdi.  He and Solera wanted to build on the success of Nabucco, the year before.  There are similarities: a strong opening Act outlining the feud between the two brothers.  After that the opera seems to lose track when a second tenor love interest arrives in the second Act (while the heroine is captured in a harem).  He gets killed at the end of Act III and there is still another Act to go, Jerusalem to be captured and the two brothers to be reconciled.  One of those brothers disguises himself as a pilgrim. It makes La forza del destino (with which it has some similarities) look like a model of clarity and concision.  Like Nabucco there is a strong anti-hero in the tortured Pagano but the rivalry between him and his brother never really gets anywhere. The heroine, Giselda has some lovely music.  There are lots of very jolly ensembles and Verdi’s ability to build up those moments where time stands still is fully developed here.  There are some decent duets and a chorus clearly trying to ape Va Pensiero.  It’s not in the same league.

You can see lots of ideas that feature in other operas, on the whole done much better: brothers at  war, wandering hermits…   You can see plot elements of Forza, Boccanegra, Due Foscari and others but without the panache.  Above all, there doesn’t seem to be a figure with anything like the force of Abigaille or Nabucco or the sort of conflict between individuals that make the other operas so interesting.  It’s actually quite hard to see why it retained its huge popularity in Italy in the 19th century.

I don’t think it was helped in this performance by Jamie Hayes’s direction.  He updated it to the 1960s and set in gangland London – two rival gangs (it really doesn’t help that there are any major representatives of one of those gangs).  The programme suggested that this was because of worries about political correctness in showing a war between Christians and Muslims.  Neither Hayes’s synopsis in the profile, nor the surtitles reallyhelped to clarify the action and I spent much of the evening (not having done my homework on the plot – I reckon that if you have to do homework, the opera’s failed) completely bewildered.  The show was professionally drilled and looked reasonably good, but it made no sense of the opera.

As ever, the principals were professional and three, I thought, were very promising.  Katherine Blumenthal made a sweet, committed Giselda who sang her arias and duets very nicely.  As Pagano, John Mackenzie displayed a really powerful bass-baritone and a strong, louring presence.  I don’t think he was helped by a the Director deciding that, rather than a hermit, he was some sort of new age preacher – making him comic rather than interesting.  But I enjoyed his singing very much and he is a very watchable singer.  I also thought that Adam Smith showed a really strong, sappy, Italianate tenor for Oronte.  There were moments where I felt that he was over-stretched by the role, but this seemed to me to be a very promising performance.  Jeff Stewart made a decent Arvinio, the last of the leading roles.

The smaller roles were taken by students who acquitted themselves pretty well even if they couldn’t disguise the gap between them and their  professional colleagues – I thought that Edward Cottell, in particular, made a very brave, creditable stab at Pirro.  The chorus has a lot of work to do and much of it is quite enjoyable.  There were lots of people and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.  They don’t produce the sound of a professional chorus – the men in particular sounded a bit anaemic – but they really coped very well indeed with some very brisk tempi and in helping those ensembles get off the ground.

The orchestra too was as good as I’ve heard it in a UCO production and Charles Peebles conducted with gusto and made the piece sound like strong early Verdi.  If only the staging and the opera had convinced me…

So one of their better efforts and I’m grateful to have seen Lombardi – the only Verdi that I’ve not experienced in a live performance is its younger sister, Jerusalem – any chance of someone doing that this year?
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