Tag Archives: Hackney Empire

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.