Ranging widely in scale and depth

A week of contrasts. From the superb, visceral intimacy of Macbeth at Blackheath Halls, to the grandeur of Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden, and then on to the curiously overblown La Rondine, with an equally curiously underpowered heroine.

A sensational Macbeth …

Blackheath Community Opera take on a mainstay of the repertory each year, and if this Macbeth is anything to by, I’ve been missing something quite special for a number of years. The seating was arranged in five or so rows on either side of the length of this wonderful venue – which feels both grand and grounded – with the orchestra at one end and the proscenium stage at the other. The playing space then became the middle of the audience, or up on the stage, or any one of a number of combinations. It was so exciting to be ‘up close’ to the art form. And when Miriam Murphy is singing Lady Macbeth, up close is especially thrilling.

The orchestra played with tremendous richness and depth, and only in the closing passages did a few notable lapses occur – it really was a gloriously full-blooded reading, and if there was just a touch of the ‘four-square’ about Nicholas Jenkins’ reading of the score, then the playing space gave some wide and constantly-shifting dynamics to be in full control of, with some quite staggering success on the opening night. The chorus were wonderfully enthusiastic and engaged with what they were singing, and audibly drew together as the performance progressed.

Miriam Murphy was thrillingly dangerous as Lady Macbeth. Other performers of the role bring clearer definition to the florid runs that occasionally overtake the character, but few can match the magisterial control of the dynamics. She dominated her Macbeth, Quentin Hayes, who sang the tortured anti-hero with great clarity and detail. Matthew Rose was a noble and resonant Banquo and Charne Rochford brought an appropriate ardour to Macduff. In a host of smaller characters, it’s worth singling out Susanna Buckle, who brought a crisp, bright voice to the Lady-in-Waiting, and Thomas Drew, who rose to challenging heights as Malcolm. The whole thing was truly tremendous, I wish I could have gone back – and seeing performance up close like this is a great reminder of just what a fiendishly difficult art opera is.

… a grand Simon Boccanegra …

At the opposite end of the operatic scale, Saturday brought Thomas Hampson into the role of the Doge of Genoa for Simon Boccanegra. It was a sultry, oppressive evening in the auditorium (and having been to a garden party beforehand didn’t do anything to help me arrive fresh and cool!) but somehow the evening seemed a slow-burn affair, and lacked some of the fizz and intensity of its last outing.

In part, I didn’t really connect with Hampson’s Boccanegra. Something about it was too smooth and controlled. Things got more intense in the final scenes, which I did find engaging and moving, but by then I’d missed the chance to connect with his character’s progression. Of course, it was all consistently sung, as we would expect from this fine artist, but it wasn’t an interpretation that ‘spoke’ to me somehow. I was much more involved with Hibla Gerzmava’s Amelia. We didn’t get such a soft-floated Come in quest’ora bruna as is often the signature of this role (and what a fearsome thing to have to sing from a cold start, as it were!) However, the drama of the later acts brought out a voice that combined beauty with some steel, allied to a strong stage presence. Her ‘girlishness’ was a bit forced in earlier scenes, but she grew into the tragedienne convincingly.

Russell Thomas was an interesting new discovery (for me) as Gabriele Adorno: ardent, with a strong ringing tenor voice. Dimitri Platanias sounded a little dry-voiced as the self-cursing Paolo, and the character didn’t quite emerge as the foil to Boccanegra that perhaps it should. Standing out, as ever, was the gripping, detailed performance by Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo, sung with sensitivity and an ability to amply convey the character’s stature and depth. Wonderful.

Moshinsky’s simple sets and relatively straightforward costume scheme (extending to the wearing of Axminster carpets in the Council Chamber scene) works effectively, but takes a while to get going in the rather grand, but simplistic visuals. I couldn’t shake a sense that, as the stage filled with crowds and incident for those scenes that demanded it, it created a curious sensation that everything and nothing is actually happening. Luckily, Pappano packs the score with incidental detail, amidst a glorious wave of thrilling, rich Verdian sound.

… and a rather fizzled-out La Rondine

When it comes to not much happening, well, you can’t beat Puccini’s domestic soap opera La Rondine. Fresh from her own bit of soap opera, Angela Gheorghiu pretty much left the first two acts to take care of themselves, and switched it on for the last act, by which time it was unfortunately a bit late.

She certainly sang attractively, but with relatively little power or projection – and not just in volume terms, but in vocal presence and lustre. Her performance was awash amidst a set that was gloriously, perhaps grotesquely, over-scaled, and populated by an obsessive and fussy approach to the minor characters and background detail, so that in the busy first two acts you never really knew where to look. Nicolas Joel’s production invited the viewer to revel in the visuals but, unfortunately, that meant that by the interval (80 minutes in) I really didn’t care what was going to actually happen. Puccini has to share some of the blame for this, with a flimsy story desperately dragged out to a full-length opera, comparing unfavourably to an incomparable emotional journey packed into less than an hour of Suor Angelica. Themes swell and return transformed, choruses punch forth refrains of earlier delicate melodies: all the Puccinian apparatus is called upon to illuminate a story that is roughly the parallel of just Act 1 and Act 2 Scene 1 of La Traviata. However beautiful the melodies: the louder and fruitier became its bluster, the less I cared.

Gheorghiu undoubtedly found a different dramatic register for the last act, and began to tug at heartstrings as she conveyed the character’s dilemma with an inwardness that – at last! – conjured up memories of the artist that we remember from those ’94 Traviatas, rather than just a singer wearing the costumes. Has she become victim of her own publicity (and I don’t just mean the most recent episode), or is it perhaps that Magda’s overt showiness earlier on in the opera is a bit too near the truth? I would really have liked to have seen Ermonela Jaho in the role, just to see if it would have benefited from a bit less ‘self-consciousness’. As Prunier, Edgaras Montvidas was nicely prim, catty, flirtatious and well-integrated with the cast around him, singing with attractive tone throughout. A slightly stronger, but more conventional, tenor presence was Charles Castronovo as Ruggero, solidly sung but lacking the truly heroic ring. Pietro Spagnoli injected some fire into the otherwise flat, jilted lover, Rambaldo. Sabine Puértolas made her debut as Magda’s no-better-than-she-ought-to-be maid, Lisette, displaying a hyperactive dramatic sense and a clear, if edgy, soprano.

Marco Armiliato drove the score with bite and swagger, but ultimately couldn’t bring it to life for me. I am aware that many were cheering it to the rafters. Alas, I wasn’t carried forth. To think, Puccini spoke of it in the same breath as Der Rosenkavalier. Awkward.

On which note, the delicate glories of Capriccio await next weekend and I absolutely can’t wait…

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