Monday, July 21, 2008

Fanciulla and Rusalka

Grange Park Opera Triumphs

Grange Park Opera in Hampshire near Basingstoke has come of age in the current season with its production of Puccini’s Fanciulla del West and Dvorak’s Rusalka. In the past good work has been done but the house style could sometimes be a bit flighty (neon lights in Thais) but not consistent in standard, but this year these performances of two operas on the verge of being in the big league are worthy of the highest praise. True, the singing in the Puccini is not of the best but the Dvorak is strongly cast. The staging is blessedly free from ‘concept’ and is played in a straight way so that, rare these days, I think the composer and librettist would still recognize their work.

Fanciulla had a propitious send-off in New York in 1910 with the two most famous singers of the day in the leading roles: Emmy Destinn as Minnie, pub-keeper in gold rush California, and Caruso, bandit in disguise, with Toscanini conducting. Yet although the opera brought in the crowds it has remained a little sister to Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly and Turandot. Why? Only one big hit of an aria, no pathetic ‘little woman’ and no tragedy could be the answer. Yet the Puccini musical thumbprints are there, sumptuous orchestration, rich harmonies and idiomatic writing for the voices (including the chorus, all male of course). Perhaps the vocal writing breaks into lyricism not enough, proceeding too often in a kind of arioso, not enough of those winning moments that touch and provoke tears.

Yet a good performance is very satisfying, as at Grange Park (I was there July 4). Rory McDonald conducted a performance that sang full of passion, colour and pace (English Chamber Orchestra).

Another ‘yet’, there were no first-class singing performances. Cynthia Makris (Finnish) the soprano looked fine, was 100% sympathetic and held the stage very well. Her top notes were clean but lower down the tone was not pure or in the middle of the note. The tenor, John Hudson, sang his notes ok but looked more like an ageing bank clerk than a bandit. I warmed more to the Icelandic baritone, Olafur Sigurdason, but Puccini didn’t give Jack Rance, the sheriff in love with Minnie, more than an arietta to sing (Ravelish), little gem though it is.

Realistic sets by Francis O’Connor and sturdy chorus singing completed the evening’s pleasure factor. The director was Stephen Metcalf.

Rusalka was even better, with a strong cast and more starry singing. The title role was consummately performed by the French soprano, Anne-Marie Duprels, the mermaid who turns into a mute human in pursuit of a Prince. Alas, he grows tired of her silence (rare to find a voiceless soprano in opera) jilts her for a Foreign Princess, changes his mind and is given the kiss of death by his fishy bride. Duprels sang, mimed and acted in positively star fashion. Her merman father, Clive Bayley, matched her excellence. Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts was a portly Prince with a sympathetic face and a fine voice (they all sang in Hampshire Czech). Anne-Marie Owens was good, too, doling out her magic potion as a perfect bitch of a witch whilst Janis Kelly was fine and every inch the other Woman/Foreign Princess.

Stephen Barlow conducted the ECO in a reading instinct with power, passion and poetry. Dvorak was just coming up to 60 when he composed this opera in 1900. The music is supremely competent, rich in sound (bass clarinet and double bassoon help with that) even if it does not plumb the depths of feeling like Dvorak’s orchestral master-pieces. The production and design by Anthony McDonald was imaginative, could scarcely be bettered.

Grange Park Opera takes place in an opera house next to a partly derelict Palladian villa set in rolling country-side. It is the creation of Wasfi Kani a conductor turned wizard fund raiser. She will have a job keeping up this standard (but I bet she will succeed). In 2009, she promises Norma, Senta, Eliogabalo (that’s a difficult one!) and a Cunning Vixen.

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