Amidst what has been quite a heavy working week, opera-going was comparatively light. There could – perhaps should – be a post on what made the heavy heavy, but I would prefer for now to focus on what made the light light.
Iolanthe at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, courtesy of the Charles Court Opera Company was a blast. I didn’t know the piece beforehand (bar the usual excerpts) and, whilst going through a bit of a G&S phase, it couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. I think that it also helped to be seeing it in one of those intimate, immediate and informal venues that you find scattered above various London hostelries. This one had slightly more comfortable seats than the others…
The reduction to a four-hand piano arrangement (with occasional drums for the big ceremonial moments such as Loudly let the Trumpets Bray) also helped to make it fresh and immediate in a way that the fully-orchestrated version of any G&S can sometimes struggle to achieve. There is always that slight sense that, whilst Offenbach skips lightly in the manner of a Haussmann boulevard façade, Sullivan displays the solidity of the heavily engineered massing of a Butterworth-Pugin collaboration. Not on this occasion, with voices clear and unforced, diction clear and the pacing swift. Just on occasion it could have been a little less swift; for example, I think G&S patter songs actually benefit from the feeling of a bit of breathing space rather than the feat-of-daring gallop that is sometimes favoured. The cast were wonderful and apologies if I don’t namecheck them all, but I would just note Simon Butteris’s Lord Chancellor as having the strongest projection of all facets of the role (character, diction, singing and, yes, pathos in the crucial scene with the fading Iolanthe). Absolutely and unwaveringly recommended, even if you don’t normally like G&S. Sparkily produced, amiable, witty nonsense – with some notable moments of repose. I keep listening to the D’Oyly Carte recording on my iPhone now and it’s fast becoming my favourite of the G&S canon – so thank you Charles Court Opera!
And who knew the very contemporary-sounding line ‘give him one’ would have the same sort of innuendo we associate it with today. Until I got home and checked the libretto, I was convinced they’d messed with the text, but no: “I heard the minx remark / she’d meet him after dark / inside St James’s Park / and give him one.”
Then on to Saturday and L’Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi. I thoroughly enjoyed the last performances of this pairing, and if the second run didn’t quite have the same ‘ping’ maybe it wasless about the performance than about where I was this time around (emotionally as well as physically: we were on the left, not the right this time!)
I enjoy the production style for both pieces and its focus on details and getting the characters doing things to bring life and energy to the goings on. For L’Heure I did enjoy Ruxandra Donose’s stomping back and forth outside the shop, visible through the glass window upstage. The business with the clocks is light and fun, and goodness knows how they’d cast anyone other than Christopher Maltman in the role. It is a rather shameless opportunity to enjoy those biceps. [Is it in Erwin Schrott’s repertoire, or Nathan Gunn’s? Oh, stop being a tart…] I thought Ruxandra Donose, whilst lively and engaging and with beautiful tone, didn’t quite have the immediacy of Christine Rice (who was originally scheduled for these performances). I also enjoyed Yann Beuron, Andrew Shore and, particularly nice to see at Covent Garden, Bonaventura Bottone.
Gianni Schicchi was slightly more dour in comparison. Still it had a lively wit, but it was a little more heavily applied and had a darker hue. That will-reading scene is a masterpiece in itself. Most of the cast, as I recall, were the same as the first run, with the crucial change of the lovers and Schicchi himself who was now Thomas Allen in place of Bryn Terfel. Terfel seemed to occupy a more solid, dark presence in the proceedings, if I remember correctly, in comparison to Allen’s brighter, more conventionally comic portrayal. Both work, and with Allen on form, it would have me drummed out of the Friends to suggest it was anything less than wonderful. And wonderful it was indeed, but there just seemed a little something missing compared to the lighter japes of L’Heure. Of the rest of the considerable cast, all are to be complemented, with a particular note perhaps for Maria Bengtsson as Lauretta providing us with that big number, and Stephen Costello who I preferred in Schicchi to Linda di Chamounix. Simone was Gwynne Howell, for whom this run marked a notable milestone in his career with Covent Garden so he got a well-deserved cheer at the end.
Pappano kept everything energetic and spirited, with good oomph when needed and what seemed to me to be good support to singers throughout. I hope that the rumours about his extension of his contract are proved correct, he is great to hear and it’s nice to have a warm feeling suffuse the House when the MD steps on to the podium.
A jolly couple of performances then. Carmen on Saturday, oh lor’!