As an avid opera goer in London and elsewhere, I learnt some time ago also to look forward to the annual visit of the English Touring Opera to Leicester. Initially inclined to be sceptical about the standards possible in a touring company with a schedule that has them in Perth one week and in Exeter the next, I have often been left amazed about what can be achieved even in Grand Opera with minimal all purpose sets , a reduced orchestra and singers often at the beginning of a career. Any condescension could not have been more misplaced. What Leicester has seen every year since ETO started visiting Curve is at least in one of the offerings top grade performance standards of singing and production, in works both from central and peripheral repertory. This is an opera company which needs no allowances to be made.
This year that was true without equivocation. Indeed, both evenings saw memorable things happening on stage. To be truthful, I approached the performance of The Marriage of Figaro with some trepidation since only last month I had heard a performance at ENO certain to stick in the memory as one of the best I had encountered anywhere. Amongst many things an extraordinary moving set that brilliantly brought to life the backstairs of a great house/palace and Lucy Crowe’s quite wonderful debut in the role of the Countess with singing of breathtakingly rich beauty made it a very special evening. I thought in particular that the singer taking that role with ETO would struggle to erase such fresh memories.
Well, the opening aria of Act 2 is known as just about the most testing opening for a singer that exists in opera and in truth Nadine Benjamin , whilst singing well, did not perhaps quite penetrate to the character’s sadness. However, as the evening progressed it became clear that this was a voice and a stage presence to be reckoned with. For example, she rose finely to the challenge of the great aria of Act 3 with its huge range of changing emotions.
With regard the set, though obviously constricted and static, it was used by the producer to considerable effect. Indeed, the movement within such a small space and the use of well placed doors had the effect of consistently concentrating the attention on what mattered. There was a real sense of detailed ensemble. For instance, the staging of the ending of Act 2 in its rightness and simplicity resulted for this viewer at least in an awareness of the wonder of this half hour or so of a musical genius at full tilt. Rarely have I felt the sense of a divine musical juggler relishing the task of keeping an ever increasing number of balls in the air. The stage picture and of course the singing and orchestral ensemble did the job to perfection.
As to the singing , the opera was strongly cast. Dawid Kimburg as the Count and Ross Ramgobin as Figaro both made strong impressions. The latter’s fine baritone was noted last year in Patience but the former was new to me. They both sang with rich tone and often with a fine line. Something in the programme suggested that it had been a production aim to play down the danger that can be found in the score. In voice this was really almost a good humoured aristocrat and a servant with few if any revolutionary intentions. There wasn’t much danger and edge to be sensed in either voice or assumption. To put the Count in a Restoration wig suggested more a moderately lecherous fop than a serial philanderer. Still it was all of a piece. You really did believe in the Countess’ forgiveness and a future for the marriage. ENO had her at the end leaving the stage with a suitcase. She did forgive her husband but had no desire to live with him any longer!
Elsewhere, Katherine Aitken was a delightful Cherubino, inhabiting the trouser role’s comic possibilities with relish but also conveying the agony of adolescence. All the minor roles were inhabited by singers who got beyond caricature to the feeling so omnipresent in this score. It is the first time that I have seen Antonio almost stop the show so wonderfully did Devin Harrison communicate the gardener’s outrage at people jumping out of windows onto his prized plants. However, for me the star of the cast was Rachel Redmond as Susannah. I have heard many sopranos like her in this role, with a sweet beguiling voice but few with the range of colour and line that seemed able to change dramatically the feeling of a scene in an instance. This singer could make Susanna a lovely cat that purred one moment, only for in the next instance the claws to be out. Couple this with the ability both in lively movement and expression to capture instantly the moment and an audience could see exactly why Figaro was head over heels in love with her. It was she who was the match for the Count. Finally, supporting all this was much fleet footed orchestral playing under conductor Christopher Stark, perhaps just occasionally a little too fleet . However, better that than things dragging and it was a pity that the conductor seemed to get lost in the depths of Curve and didn’t make it onto the stage. He deserved the plaudits for having presided musically over a fine ensemble achievement.
The next evening devoted to Puccini was equally satisfying. Il Tabarro is a big ask in a smallish theatre and with a reduced orchestra. However, it came over as the authentic thing with an amazing power of sound issuing from the orchestra under Michael Rosewell. It is a powerful opera worthy of more recognition than it has had. Perhaps that is in part because it is a grim tale of a grim world. However, this world is painted in sometimes evocative and rich musical colours which once again point to what a master orchestrator Puccini was. Each of his operas has its unique sound world which is yet still immediately recognisable as his and his alone and the opera may be grim but it is full of heartstopping moments as this tale of poverty and people who are trapped in hopelessness unfolds.
Perhaps, one of the difficulties of staging it is that the world to which the characters of the opera do not belong is nevertheless an important element in the music. It is the Paris of the good life and in this production that this was completely another world was powerfully conveyed by a blank high iron barrier filling the back of the stage, beyond which was Paris. Hence, there was little actual glimpse of this other world beyond people and lovers passing high up in the set. In productions on a bigger stage some more tangible sense of La Belle Paris can be achieved to give a visual counterpart to the beauty of the sounds on occasions issuing from the orchestral pit. This tangible presence of another world so close and yet so far can provide a instant and further turn of the dramatic screw .
However, that screw was often turned here to effect. The lovers played by Sarah Jane Lewis and Charne Rochford made a powerful duo. The latter sang his heart out ,his tenor oozing desperation. Indeed, on occasions one wondered whether he was not pushing the voice rather too hard. The former, however, rode the orchestra at times to superb effect and powerfully conveyed her desperate unhappiness throughout. Clarissa Meek gave her first brilliant cameo of the evening as Frugola the ragpicker who so encapsulates the reality of poverty as against the dream of a better life away from the drudgery and the fear for the future with an ill husband who can barely do the job of a stevedore. Over all this hovers the gruff presence of Michele, the rightly suspicious husband and father, mourning for his lost child and what he feels is the lost love of his wife. Craig Smith made both the sadness and the latent violence of the man palpable as he stalked around his barge and when the lighting of his pipe in the darkness ironically reveals his wife’s lover his eruption was felt to be truly shocking. Was it my imagination or was his voice in significantly better shape than last year in Tosca? Whatever, I found it a riveting performance.
And then Gianni Schicchi burst upon us with unforgettable and outrageous comic force. This was a triumph, reflecting the power a fine ensemble company can deliver. The farcical needs to be rendered with absolute precision of timing if it is not to fall flat. Here the bunch of grotesques painted like clowns which appeared before us in the shape of the grasping Donati family was a vision indeed worthy of Dante’s Hell . Set not in the Middle Ages but in early 20c. Italy, it seemed rather dreadfully pertinent given recent events in that country. Timothy Dawkins as Simone the ex mayor, wandering around with his flies half undone, set the tone. Clarissa Meeks as Zita, this time like some ancient female vulture, dominated the stage. In the middle of these horrors were the young lovers, not made up and blessedly human.
Then there was Schicchi himself, the self made man who also stood out amongst such ghastliness. Andrew Slater, without make up, with firm solid voice played him with almost aristocratic disdain for the grasping crowd around him, that is until he saw the opportunity of making a shekel or two at the expense of the dreadful family. There was almost a grimness about how he set out to dupe them. However, the finesse with which this production shoe horned Lauretta’s famous plea to Daddy into the opera’s world underlined something that had not registered with me quite so clearly before, that the daughter has inherited something of Daddy’s ability to manipulate. As sung by Galina Averina ,it was both heart rending and yet beautifully pertinent to Puccini’s ironic vision. Perhaps this depiction of the central figure lost a bit of the glee with which he puts the family to flight. There seemed more a sense of disgust than triumph in the way he kicked them out of what was now his house but the approach was in its own way hugely satisfying and one finished as one listened to the epilogue wondering more than is some other productions what Schicchi indeed had done to deserve his eternal dismissal at the hands of the poet. It was a perfect ending to a splendid two days of opera at Curve. Please do come again, in 2019!