Review: English Touring Opera, Spring Tour 2016, Snape Maltings, April 7-9
PUBLISHED: 17:02 11 April 2016 | UPDATED: 17:03 11 April 2016
Never let it be said that ETO simply bring box office favourites to the corners of Britain. This is a company of high artistic achievement and a conviction that there is both an appetite and a market ‘out there’ for less well known operas that still pass the test of quality.
The mini-residency at Snape began with Donizetti’s Pia de Tolomei, first performed in Venice in 1837. The story centres on Pia, a woman of noble birth who has become an unwilling pawn in a bitter dispute between two Italian states. In an effort to find a solution, Pia has been married to Nello, of lower social rank and from the opposition. Nello’s friend Ghino is attracted to Pia and, seeing an apparently compromising letter addressed to her, he decides to exploit it. In fact it is from Pia’s brother, Rodrigo, who has been captured and imprisoned by Nello’s forces and is trying to contact Pia.
The dark story inspired Donizetti to some arresting and powerful music and both singers and orchestra responded in full measure. The fortissimos were as strong as could be wished for and conductor John Andrews drove the performance forward with purpose and authority.
Elena Xanthoudakis sang Pia with a strong, burnished tone; she had plenty in reserve and hit the high notes with aplomb. Grant Doyle conveyed his anger and suspicion of his wife effectively and Luciano Botelho was a credible and devious Ghino. The role of Rodrigo is relatively small but Catherine Carby made the most of the fine aria she sings on her escape from prison and it was one of the most memorable arias of the evening.
John-Colyn Gyeanty and Susanna Fairbairn made distinctive contributions as servants to Ghino and Pia, while Craig Smith was a sombre Lamberto and Piotr Lempa a convincing hermit. There was little to gladden the eye in the set or lighting but James Conway’s direction captured the spirit of the drama.
Director Lloyd Wood set his Don Giovanni in the underground tunnels of Vienna around 1900, with glimpses of Klimt pointing to the more sophisticated world above and from which the characters descended, spiritually as well as physically.
From the very opening bars the opera surged forward with real momentum towards its final tragedy. Matthew Stiff, an engaging and extrovert Leporello, was a well-cast foil to the more aloof and scheming Don, excellently portrayed by George Von Bergen. The three female roles were most effectively characterised, Lucy Hall a lively and spirited Zerlina, Ania Jeruc’s elegantly attired Elvira torn between her lingering love for the Don and hurt at his treatment of her and Camilla Roberts, shocked, but perhaps secretly thrilled by the Don’s attack and finally imposing unreasonable demands on her wimpish fiancé for their marriage.
Robin Lyn Evans sang the part of Don Ottavio with considerable finesse and reminded us why the role is a prized, if unheroic, one. Masetto was nicely portrayed by Bradley Travis and Piotr Lempa had all the chilling power needed for the Commentadore.
Credit is due for the smart choreography of the crowd scenes and the orchestra played with absolute coherence and purpose under the experienced baton of ETO’s Music Director Michael Rosewell.
Like Donizetti on the opening night, Gluck did not fill the Maltings Hall but a more than respectable audience assembled on both occasions (Giovanni, pleasingly, sold out). Iphigenie en Tauride is a serious masterpiece, arguably Gluck’s finest, and James Conway’s splendid production, though not without its challenges, took the Greek myth head-on. The orchestra plunged full tilt into the opening storm and soon we were witnessing blood dripping from the corpses of the sacrificed strangers who were unfortunate enough to find themselves at the temple in Tauris.
The set, particularly in the opening stages, looked superb, the blood stained aprons of the priestesses combining with the lighting to give the effect of a wall of old master oil paintings. Catherine Carby was outstanding as Iphigenie; imposing of voice and stature she captured attention and admiration throughout. The close relationship between her brother Orestes and his companion Pylades was made explicit but the underlying love was portrayed with more subtle theatrical moments and refined as well as passionate singing in which Grant Doyle (Orestes) and John-Colyn Gyeanty (Pylades) really did distinguish themselves.
The chorus impressed with their powerful and incisive interventions. Gluck is a seminal figure in the history of opera and his music does point in new directions.
Martin Andre and the orchestra conveyed the invigorating inspiration of Gluck’s writing in what was certainly an arresting if not always comfortable evening.
Once again ETO has brought varied opera of the highest quality away from the capital to deserving and appreciative audiences and it deserves all the plaudits it increasingly receives.