To quote the aged Captain Vere as he looks back at the end of Britten’s great opera Billy Budd, ‘long ago now, years ago, centuries ago’ I was teaching in a Kent Boys Grammar school. This establishment took great pride that each year since 1911 their main school dramatic offering had been a G and S production. Received opinion then amongst many of those who thought themselves musically knowledgeable was that these operettas were ,as someone dismissively put it, ‘ music for the unmusical’ and my Kentish experiences seemed fully to confirm that opinion. Hearing little boys stumbling through the female parts, watching a ‘production’ where, since it was still in copyright, the head of PE followed to the letter the D’Oyle Carte book ( this basically consisted of the cast standing around in semi –circles), watching members of staff doing their comic bit to an audience which hugged itself with delight at anticipation of each well known gag, listening to the awful orchestral playing, all of this was for me an utterly dismaying experience. Worst of all was what I thought to be the ridiculously prissy view of sex and the thoroughly deplorable satire of older women who supposedly had lost their charms. Relishing Offenbach and Johann Strauss, I thought G and S exemplified everything that was dreadful about upper and middle class ‘Englishness’, a view I held until long after the copyright had lapsed.
Then the English National Opera started to mount G and S productions which I found revelatory, wonderfully played and sung, showing Sullivan’s music to be quite the equal of any in the world of operetta, the comedy produced and played with flair and with an absolutely straight face (which, of course, is the essence of successful satire and comedy). Finally the advent of surtitles revealed fully the wonder of Gilbert’s lyrics, in the rich tradition of Victorian surrealism to be found in such as Lewis Carroll.
ETO’s production of Patience, a work I had never seen staged until now, was up there with the best of them. From beginning to end it was a complete delight, obviously achieved after enormous attention to detail by the production staff and placed in a charmingly apt set in what I take to be William Morris green. (I noted that the conductor like myself attended the same Oxford college as the famous man!) Time and again such things as the Victorian invention of a medieval world that existed only in the imagination were skewered in all their absurdity.
It was immediately clear that movement had featured much in rehearsal. Quite recently, when discussing another operatic production, a friend and I remarked how well modern singers move. The stand and deliver days are well and truly over. It was a delight,for example, simply to watch Bunthorne dance around the stage with his quill pen held aloft. Conversely the scene in which the military attempt to imitate the aesthetes was divinely riotous as one saw limbs being stretched into poses soldiers were not meant to adopt.
Best of all was the person at the centre of all this topsy turvy world, the often bewildered down to earth maiden, Patience herself. She achieved something very difficult. She communicated perfectly by her understated movements, so contrasted against the exaggerated posing of the people around her, that she was the only person with any grasp on reality. She reminded me, perhaps as she was intended to, of Alice, indeed in Wonderland. Possibly the best joke of the evening was this apparently quite slight girl effortlessly carrying aloft a milk churn whose weight was far too much for the flower maidens even to move, and culminating in her doing a bit of stage re-arrangement by hoicking a large garden ornament to the back of the stage. Another treasurable moment was poor Lady Jane’s attachment to a double bass, reflecting the orchestration during her lament over her loss of allure. Besides being incongruously very funny, it also somehow created sympathy for the poor woman in what can otherwise be seen as a rather cruel moment in the piece, despite the loveliness of the music.
And the music was rendered very finely indeed by cast and orchestra. Right from overture the feather lightness and buoyancy of the orchestral playing made it clear that conductor Anthony Burke was intent on showing why he thought this score of the early 1880’s to be the finest to have been written in this country since the time of Handel in the first half of the 18c. It was often wonderfully more champagne than roast beef and beer, though in the military moments there was plenty of the latter. The chorus singing was splendid throughout. Bradley Travis and Ross Ramgobin as the two poets displayed fine but sharply differentiated baritone voices. These two artists surely have a great future. Conversely Andrew Slater’s assumption of Colonel Calverley was that of an immensely experienced singer, never putting a foot wrong in what are, thanks to Gilbert, some very tricky operatic moments.
There were some equally fine female voices in the cast. Valerie Reid as Lady Jane was in lovely voice for her moment of lament and a number of others could be mentioned. However, finally it was Lauren Zollezi in the title role who quite rightly drew the cheers. Her stage craft has already been mentioned, the way with minimum movement she could draw eyes to her but of course the voice was in the end the thing and here it was a delight, silvery and agile, beautifully phrased throughout. So all in all this was a real winner, the kind of thing which ETO regularly produces.
Mindful of their triumphant production of La Boheme a few years ago, I wondered whether Tosca ,their second offering this year, would be equally successful. Well, there were a number of riveting moments but also correspondingly aspects which missed their target by some margin. That this was so was certainly not down to the conductor nor to the singers in the roles of Tosca and Cavaradossi. It has over the years been a constant source of wonder how Michael Rosewell manages with small forces to produce the authentic Puccini sound. Occasionally, as at the end of Act 1, the orchestra couldn’t quite produce the flood of sound demanded but elsewhere I lost count of the moments where one heard orchestral felicities often lost in a more expansive setting.
Also, absolutely no allowances needed to be made for Paula Sides as Tosca. Was it my imagination that she looked remarkably like Callas? That also perhaps says something about the subtlety, power and beauty of her singing and acting. Time and again she seemed effortlessly alert to every turn in this character’s complex character, shading her voice where required to convey her vulnerability as well as being thrilling as the tigress. Her great Act 2 aria was completely of a piece with her assumption, conveying wonderfully a woman so bereft and defenceless as to bring tears to the eyes. At such moments, how can one believe that this opera was once described as a ‘shabby little shocker’? The penetration and completeness of this performance was somehow for me exemplified by the extraordinary and unforgettable way she ascended a steep ladder into the roof of the theatre, like a swift athlete making sure her pursuers would never catch her alive.
In many ways Alexander James Edwards as her lover matched her in ardour. His voice had the required Italianate ring and he was especially good in the opening act as he fenced with the woman he loved. In the final act he movingly played Cavaradossi as a broken man, at least sceptical about what Tosca was telling him. The supporting roles were also cast from strength. Aled Hall was a particularly spine chilling and malevolently watchful Spoletta as he went about Scarpia’s business.
All of this made two major failings in the production all the more of a pity. Over the years in which ETO has been visiting Leicester, I have admired the way Craig Smith has been an indefatigable part of their productions. I have never found his baritone particularly pleasing but he has always managed something of a dramatic presence on the stage and this year I note he is taking the role of Scarpia 25 times out of 31. That is devotion for you. Sadly, however, I found him quite miscast. Vocally his rather dry grey sound failed to find any of the black power mixed with velvet by which this the most feared man in Rome can most memorably be evoked. The great Scarpias can command and terrorise almost with the lift of an eyebrow. The first entry in Act 1 can establish that in a second. Here,alas, it suggested the character to be an almost manic figure who had somehow barged into the church. In Act 2, the more the singer was moved about the stage, the more there was a failure to find in the lovingly moulded musical phrase the snake like and sensual insinuation of a man in control, a man who enjoys playing with the victims on his hook.
The production contributed in no small measure to this problem. I was somewhat surprised to find that the designer was common to both productions, with the G and S so fit for purpose and Tosca so manifestly not. Only in last Act did the set achieve some sense of a particular space and that was by keeping the doomed couple downstage. Also, the upright girder at the back of the stage which Tosca ascended prior to her final plunge could perhaps have been seen fittingly as a guillotine . Elsewhere I could discern no meaningful symbolism in the stage picture of Meccano- like girders. In Act 1 the church altar, the focus of much of the action was only to be recognised by Angelotti picking up his clothing disguise from under a girder. Scarpia’s room was so divided by the set, there was so much disconcerting movement between the segments, that what should have been a concentration on the relentless turning of the screw was constantly interrupted. If that was not enough, each journey across the girders demanded a hop and a skip to navigate them. Nor was there any imaginative use of lighting. The one idea was to spotlight Tosca for her big aria, which really says it all. I have enjoyed many so called ‘daring’ productions which have annoyed the conservative section of the operatic public but such productions have had one thing in common, the ability to translate the ‘concept’ into meaningful stage action. That too rarely happened here.
Never mind. Opera is a complex venture and one will never please all the people, all the time. Suffice to say that the visit as a whole reminded the Leicester public yet again what a force ETO is in the operatic life of this country. More power to its elbow.