The Abstract and the Concrete
the festivals of Britain and Ireland. Alongside the inevitable productions of Cavalleria Rusticana L’Amico Fritz (1891) and Zanetto (1896), while last year’s Wexford Festival ambitiously mounted Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), the work Mascagni considered his opera, Iris on European culture in the 1890s (conspicuous in the paintings of James Madame Chrysanthème) found its way into musical works as diverse as Saint Saens’ La Princesse Jaune (1872) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado on 22 November 1898, Iris was an instant success (Enrico Caruso took over the tenor role when the opera was performed in La Scala, Milan the following January). Like most of Mascagni’s ‘other’ works, however, the success did not endure, and as an operatic expression of the contemporary taste for Japanese orientalism, Iris Madama Butterly (1904).
Iris, which lies not in Mascagni’s music but the story’s lack of action, to which might be added a lack of complexity or humanity to the characterisation. On the surface the work is a sordid tale of sexual exploitation, but the music and libretto pit experience and corruption against innocence and wonder. The thin plot is book-ended by a rapturous hymn to the sun, which begins portentously with a double bass before rising and swelling into an ecstatic chorus, su young girl who lives alone with her blind father, lovingly tending to the - ages to her protector the Sun. She is abducted by Osaka, a young nobleman,
city). Initially Osaka is interested in Iris only for sex, but she resists his advances and he gives up in disgust. He is drawn back to her when Kyoto – whose only interest is in his ‘merchandise’ (‘mia merche’) – parades her in front of an assembled horde of lusting locals. Other aspects of the plot – the denunciation of Iris by her father who thinks she has willingly embraced prostitution, and Iris’s suicidal plunge into a sewer (though in the Holland
Dramatically, the work turns on the contrasts of sordid realism and sentimental fairy tale. The play of light and dark is captured at the end when the the Sun God, while the voices of Osaka, Kyoto and her father confess their guilt. Olivia Fuchs’s staging brought out these contrasts well, striking the right amount of pathos at the close without allowing sentiment to override our essential disgust at the appalling fate of the central character. Three large bamboo cages served as protecting and imprisoning symbols of Iris’s fate, while the water lilies and night candles which grace the stage in the opening scene are replaced at the end by the dank emptiness of the sewer. - plicity and sparseness served the drama well.
sentimentalise a character who, in the throes of imminent passion, longs only for her little garden and its babbling brook. Anne Sophie Duprels sang with as much natural innocence in the voice as she could muster and when confronted by her seducer in the brothel managed to combine sexual naivety with enough vocal forcefulness to cut through Mascagni’s heavily eroticised orchestral writing. Alongside her, Noah Stewart as Osaka cut - situra of the Act 1 serenade (the best known melody in the work), he produced some high-octane tenor singing in the failed seduction scene. He and Kyoto (well sung by the baritone James Cleverton) were dressed in 1940s suits and struck a suavely sinister pose in their acting. Mikhail Svetlov was gravely sonorous as Iris’s blind father. Stuart Stratford, highly experienced
in this repertoire, conducted with a sure control of pace and dynamics.
to La Cenerentola, The Queen of Spades and Die Fledermaus, there was a Bohème which impressed some critics but which I found ill-conceived. and place, and Stephen Barlow’s decision to backdate the action to evoke the Shakespearan theatre robbed the work of its essential warmth and pathos. The garret was set up as a stage-within-a-stage with shaking pillars Elizabeth, while Rodolfo’s dress suggested the poet was meant to be Shakespeare himself. Without a door to knock, there was no room for Mimi to fall innocently into Rodolfo’s life in Act 1, and no touch of feigned innocence when he openly pocketed her key in front of her during his aria. It was spirited at times, but rarely moving (perhaps that was the point). The musical feisty and characterful as Musetta. Matthew Waldron conducted with sensitivity and coped well with a rhythmically rebellious Rodolfo.
musical architecture is often deliberately evocative of the location of his production of La Fanciulla del West stage movement all evoke the Wild West of the mid-nineteenth-century, masculine world of the gold diggers. The travelling minstrel’s nostalgic lament for home (smoothly sung by Thomas Humphreys) was arresting in its simplicity. As the ‘fanciulla’ herself, Claire Rutter scaled the perilous heroine a good deal more feminine than usual, offering a winningly gentle attack on many of the exposed high Cs. As the bandit Ramerrez, Lorenzo Decaro phrased handsomely in a voice that was robust and heroic, if a little muscular at the top of the range. Stephen Gadd made the Sherriff Jack
drew luscious sounds from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in what
99-year lease to produce opera at its new home in the Theatre in the Wood for the future swept aside memories of the past in pre-performance an residency in grand style with concert performances of Tristan und Isolde, alongside less grand (but apparently warmly received) performances of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and a production of Verdi’s supreme achievement in grand opera (possibly in all opera) Don Carlo. Wisely, in view of the version of Don Carlos with Aida behind him and Otello in preparation. This Don Carlo, performed at La Scala in 1884 in an Italian translation (Verdi composed and revised the work in French), may be structurally less satisfactory than the a strong case for its artistic importance, notwithstanding a controversial change to the ending.
The production, directed by Jo Davies, emphasised the opera’s darkness. The set design by Leslie Charteris, with two towering walls narrowing the stage, created a claustrophobic atmosphere, while the austere black cos direction was brutally realistic. The snarling chorus, accenting the down rose above a towering cross at the back of the stage. In this vision there was little room for Verdi’s musical gesture of salvation (derived from his hatred of the institutional power of the Church). The celestial voice which wel-
comes the souls of the heretics to Heaven was barely audible and passed almost unnoticed as a stray child was hurled onto the pyre. Most controversially, Davies’s production altered the ending so that Carlo is not drawn into the tomb by the ghost of Charles V (the mysterious monk of Act 1) - tionalists, but it is arguably more consistent with the tone of the opera’s librettists. In Friedrich Schiller’s play, upon which the opera is based, Car duty. It could be argued that this production restored the spirit of Schiller. - ent with Davies’s dark interpretation that there should be no salvation for Carlo and Elisabetta.
The cast was mostly impressive. As Don Carlo, Stefano Secco sang fer - ingly sung by Virginia Tola. Her Act 2 aria was silken in tone but the vo up at forte and threadbare at pianissimo. The strongest purely vocal per heart, but oddly little tonal variation either side of the mortal wounding top notes of ‘O don fatale’ were not absolutely securely focused but the delivery was impassioned and drew the biggest applause of the evening. Clive Bayley may not have the most Italianate tone, and there were some moments of over-accentuation, but he was appropriately black-voiced with
a good body of sound and successfully captured the duality at the heart of - - ing the core of the King’s fragile conscience. Once again, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Marcianò, played superbly (a notably haunting performance by the solo cello at the start of Act 3) and the scaled down chorus was again excellent.
At Wormsley, Garsington Opera’s showpiece this year was Mozart’s Idomeneo. In addition to Eugene Onegin and a dance adaptation of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation in collaboration with the Rambert School, there was also a new production of Rossini’s early comedy L’Italiana in Algeri, imaginatively conceived by director Will Tuckett. George Souglides’s spectacular set - a giant white staircase supported by gold pillars - was full-on Liberace kitsch, while the velvet stools, water fountain, and domed archway suitably evoked the palace of the Bey of Algiers. There was a delight for once, was played not as a buffoon but as a youthful, nasty despot, which satisfying. Among the largely excellent cast, Riccardo Novaro, a late replacement as Taddeo, gave an object lesson in how to act with the voice. As Mustafa, Quirin de Lang’s rather cavernous baritone lacked a degree As Lindoro, the small-voiced tenor Luciano Botelho displayed an accom - tive in the passagework and ensembles than the exposed Act 1 aria. Isabella herself, costumed in the golden age of Hollywood, was sung and characterised superbly by the mezzo Ezgi Kutlu. With a well-focused lower register and dominated the stage. L’Italiana is a work of many set numbers, but its youthful sparkle (it was composed in only twenty-seven days when Rossini was just twenty-one) lies in the manic ensembles, choreographed here to perfection. The cast – clearly well-rehearsed – brought out the musical characters stammer their confusion in different tonal exclamations.
The best all-round performance I witnessed at this year’s summer festivals, however, was Garsington’s Idomeneo. The opera was cut to a more manageable length, close in text to the 1951 Glyndebourne production, but with a mezzo-soprano Idamante. Regrettably, both of Arbace’s arias were omitted. While these do little to advance the action, they are beautiful and the ear longs for them. Tim Albery’s production, with sets designed by Hannah Clark, struck a balance between the abstract and the concrete, allowing the performance to throw out loose connections between the mythical and the real without imposing a rigid concept which would have made the fabulous implausible. The set was dominated by two large ship containers, symbolic of romance and heroism run aground, and suggestive of the environmental and migration crises of our time. The costumes brought to mind the world of Peter Grimes, a reminder that obsessions and neuroses have always accompanied tales of the sea. One container was collapsed into the sand, out of which emerged the Trojan prisoners in Act 1 (greeted with blankets and mugs of tea) and into which were dumped the bin bags in Act 3 containing - prisonment of both characters – Ilia literally a captured Trojan, Idomeneo on reaching land (who turns out to be his son Idamante).
Once past some directionless moments in the overture, the production was sure-footed throughout. When the sea monster visited its plague on Crete, stage opened up to create a channel through which the plague metaphorically ran. In Act 3 the ‘Voice’ (projected here as the God Neptune) which - ered with oil in a black leather coat. This small but chilling part was sung, imposingly, by the bass Nicholas Masters in a suitably dark voice.
Toby Spence gave an authoritative performance as Idomeneo. Searching for force and darkness in the vocal line, his recitatives were well-pointed and the arias delivered with a strong pulse, although the very top notes
coloratura, were a little smudged. There was considerable artistry in his vow lifted by the Gods, he deployed a softer head voice, capturing the re - brant singing of Caitlin Hulcup, who delivered the trouser-role of Idamante spectacularly. The part was originally written for a castrato and in places Hulcup sounded uncannily like a male soprano. Rhythmically precise, she brought a wonderful variety of colours as she alternated between the roles lover Elettra, who gradually sinks into despair, Rebecca von Lipinski acted marvellously, only occasionally allowing wildness to disrupt her impressive vocal line. Her Act 1 aria bewailing the loss of Idomeneo’s love was delivered in her rival Ilia’s bedroom and descended into clothes-throwing. as well as rage, before she was carried away crying and wailing.
The chorus performed splendidly, producing an especially beautiful sound in the chorale-like farewell in Act 2, which anticipates the famous Act 1 trio in Così fan tutte. Tobias Ringborg favoured brisk tempi that provided - formance which demonstrated how directorial restraint can pay dividends in the face of musical and mythical seriousness.