Rossini and Kit & the Widow

“We’re off to Glyndebourne to see a rather boring opera by Rossini,
We both like Glyndebourne; it gives us scope to be particularly queeny.”
Kit & the Widow, ‘Glyndebourne’ (tune: overture to Il Barbiere di Siviglia)

A curious link between my last two artistic experiences.  As this year’s Glyndebourne whirl approaches, Kit & the Widow’s rather wonderful song about the experience of a day in Sussex focuses on the process of actually getting there.  Traffic problems and overly fancy picnics culminate in the sort of flustered arrival in the gardens which seems to be such a feature of a relaxed afternoon’s opera-going in the Sussex Downs.

Ah well, back to Rossini, and in particular a belated comment on the Caurier/Leiser production of Il Turco in Italia at the Royal Opera House.  The production style is evident from photos and heartily meets with my approval.  The cast, containing buffo stalwart Alessandro Corbelli as the hapless husband and Aleksandra Kurzak providing a lighter Fiorilla than the last run’s Cecilia Bartoli.  Colin Lee got an outing of his own accord as Narciso, rather than playing second fiddle to Flórez, and the Turk himself was Ildebrando d’Arcangelo.  Both Lee and d’Arcangelo were more satisfying that in previous roles: Narciso seemed more lyrical, requiring less dexterity than does Almaviva, and this suited Lee better.  d’Arcangelo was a far more satisying Turk than he had been a Toreador in runs of Carmen.  His voice came across full and firm, with a weight equal to the role.

Corbelli is faultless.  He always provides the impression that the role of the director in matters comic is a minor one, and that it simply arises naturally from the character as written.  I’ve like everything Kurzak has, thus far, done at Covent Garden and this was no exception.  She was equal of Bartoli in the sassy, sharply-dressed minx and, if her voice was lighter and just a little less solid in the higher ranges, it didn’t detract significantly.  The character’s comeuppance was moving, switching effortlessly back to comic selfishness after the reconciliation.

A mention is needed for Leah-Marian Jones.  I remember her always as the Flora Bervoix who could hold attention whilst Angela Gheorghiu was dazzling everyone in that 1994 Traviata (a first and formative ‘sensational’ opera experience when I had an Upper Slips ticket for what turned out to be the television broadcast performance).  I was struck here by her voice having quite an edge and being a little rough and inflexible in places, but there was still plenty of dramatic fire to enliven the comedy.

And Thomas Allen’s Prosdocimo?  It may have been hard to hear at times, but he still commands the stage and is always a joy to watch.  And that was needed, because despite all this talent being lavished on the performance, and all the visual comedy, and the bright colours, and the slapstick, there were moments when this performance dragged somewhat.  Partly the fault of Rossini – it’s simply not as fiery a score as Barbiere or Cenerentola – I also thought that the conducting (Maurizio Benini) was a little flat.  Everything was very ‘even’ which, whilst there were no odd or jarring moments, neither was there the fizz and dynamism that Rossini invites.  Nonetheless, in summary, a fun and frolicsome night that was richly needed.

Which brings us on to Kit & the Widow.  Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square, was the venue (repeatedly referred to by Kit as ‘Chelsea-stroke-Belgravia’).  I last saw them at the Wigmore Hall and, whilst that was being recorded for Wigmore Hall Live, this concert was being recorded for DVD.  In both venues, their performance was marred by poor sound quality.  In the Wigmore, eight or so rows from the front, it was a struggle to hear their rapid-patter delivery.  At Cadogan Hall, again only six rows back, the amplification muddied the diction and was intermittent to the point where either you were struggling to hear or you struggled to decipher.  In the interval, complaints to beleaguered front-of-house staff were legion and the volume was upped in the second half.  Everyone was offered a free copy of the DVD for their pains. And before I leave the subject of the performance experience, that is a point which does the duo no credit and is a shame on the production team and Cadogan Hall.  The ‘warm up’ man (in fact the producer) came on before the performance and, amidst a few light jokes, told people sitting in the balcony to the right that they were visible on certain shots, so could they all up and move to a place further back down the balcony (there must have been about 40 of them affected). Had that been me, this blog would have been electric with expletives.  It was appallingly handled, and reinforced a feeling that we – the paying audience – were incidental to the project of recording a DVD.  And, taken alongside the over-amplification of the Sondheim concert the other week, it points to an urgent need on the part of Cadogan Hall to give some serious attention to the visual and acoustic issues for mic’d and video’d performances.  Harrumph.

Anyway, the performance itself can’t really be faulted.  I adore Noël Coward, Tom Lehrer and Flanders & Swann, who are all cited as Kit & the Widow’s antecedents, and they fully earn their place in that distinguished line-up.  Lyrics are fabulously clever, their targets are varied, their material is edgy and their delivery is so manic, warm and dangerously inviting.  Their pathos songs don’t quite do it for me in the same way as Fascinating Aïda’s, with the exception of Swansong which is reminiscent of Flanders & Swann’s Bedstead Men in its less-comic lament for the pollution of the nation’s rivers and streams.  The jab at Sondheim fans (in ‘People Who Like Sondheim’) is hilarious.  And when they get rude, it’s fabulous.

Their traditional finale gives me pause for thought each time, being the tune of Nessun Dorma with words that are taken from an Indian restaurant menu.  With flashcards, the audience all join in, but the effect is very slightly discomforting.  It was more so at the near all-white Wigmore Hall, less so at the slightly less-rarified Cadogan Hall; but nonetheless, starting with ‘Chicken Korma’ and ending with ‘Vindaloo’ in place of ‘vincero!’ is not fun to be taken uncritically (and fun it most certainly, whether unfortunately, is!)

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