A Weekend of Superb Opera

English Touring Opera, Snape Maltings, November 26/27

English Touring Opera is a regular and welcome visitor to Snape, spring visits generally bring established repertoire whereas Autumn sometimes offers less familiar fare. This time two utterly contrasting works were performed, on Friday ‘Promised End’, a condensing and adaptation of ‘King Lear’ by Alexander Goehr and the recently deceased Frank Kermode, and on Saturday ‘The Duenna’, a collaboration between Richard Brinsley Sheridan and two Thomas Linleys (father and son).

Both works (one hot off the press, the other from 1775) call for some introduction and so to the first of several heroes. Step forward Oliver Baird, Staff Director and a born communicator if ever there was one and who introduced each work with an engaging mix of scholarship and charm. More than once I overheard ‘I could have listened to him for hours’ and so could I.

Promised End was given its premiere by ETO (a considerable vote of confidence) at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House on October 9th this year. To reduce such a pinnacle of literature to less than two hours involved some excision but the essentials remain and the result is, if not exactly an easy listen, then still a gripping drama. The central role of Lear was ably fulfilled by Roderick Earle, overbearing and authoritative at the start but gradually declining into uncertainty and madness with time. All other roles were more than capably filled, Lina Markeby demonstrating her dexterity as both Cordelia and the Fool. The vocal lines are often quite strongly lyrical but the accompaniment is sharper with woodwind and brass dominating and some arresting contributions from organ and guitar. The second half created more tension than the first, perhaps unsurprisingly, but the sense of the universal unfolding of events was maintained throughout, in no small part due to the perspicacity of director James Conway and his team and the commitment of the performers.

Whether the work will establish itself in the repertoire remains to be seen but there was no doubting the cohesion and intelligence of the ‘libretto’ and the music. The Aurora orchestra, on stage but behind the performers, played with bite and authority under the direction of Ryan Wigglesworth.

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The Duenna was enormously popular and successful following its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in November 1775. Based on a brilliant comedy of misunderstandings by the celebrated Sheridan (Rivals, School for Scandal et al) the work is not an opera as we understand it today, more a play incorporating high quality lyrics with much of the music composed by Tom Linley, widely regarded as immensely promising before his untimely death in a boating accident at only 22. With inventive use of two levels of staging and a strong dramatic lead from Richard Stuart as the all-controlling but ultimately outwitted father of two of the main characters the production romped along with a captivating and infectious joie-de-vivre. The ETO Baroque Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Joseph McHardy gave an authentic edge and energy to the songs and delivered a bright and bristling overture. The oboe playing, in particular, was excellent. The four young people at the centre of the plot embraced their parts with enthusiasm, Olivia Safe as Clara having a particularly attractive voice. Nuala Willis as the Duenna showed an unerring gift for the comic touch and Richard Stuart’s Don Jerome seemed to give the performance just that little extra frisson whenever he appeared. A totally captivating evening and one can only hope that this production might presage further performances of this delightful work.

With difficult weather conditions, particularly on the Saturday evening, the excellent attendance for a splendid performance of a relatively unknown work shows that there is indeed an appetite and an audience for high quality operatic productions of all sorts. English Touring Opera provides this in spades and we look forward to their next visit.

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Gareth Jones

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