English Touring Opera is a gem of a company. It creates sensible productions and tours them widely from Exeter to Durham. This spring it offers three operas: . Unable to afford big name directors who sometimes bend the original creation to their will, ETO gives us what the composer intended, allowing the music to speak for itself and the singers to portray the roles expected.
After missing the Handel, I caught both the other two at the start of the tour in London’s Hackney Empire. Lucrezia Borgia is an infamous name: the illegitimate daughter of a Cardinal who later became Pope. Educated by intellectuals, rather than a convent, she became fluent in Latin and Greek. Unsurprisingly in Renaissance Italy, this beautiful and intelligent young woman was hot matrimonial property. By the time the opera begins she is already onto her third husband: Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, with whom she had eight children. In Act 1 she encounters one of them (Gennaro), brought up as an orphan, unaware of his real mother. His friends taunt him that he is in love with the wicked Lucrezia Borgia, and to prove his contempt for the family he tears the initial B from the name on the gates, leaving “orgia” (orgy).
Lucrezia demands death for the perpetrator, not knowing his identity, but when faced with her own son she hides the fact and pleads for his life. To no avail — her pitiless husband Duke Alfonso gives her only the choice of how Gennaro is to die. She chooses death by poison, to which she provides the antidote and begs her son to leave the city. In the final act he is still around, but this time her antidote is not sufficient to save his friends and he chooses to die with them. Serious operatic tragedy indeed, and the soprano Paula Sides made a beautiful and sympathetically sung Lucrezia, with Aidan Edwards a fine presence as her husband, the Duke, with a cutting edge to his voice.
This melodrama is a huge contrast to Rossini’s witty opera about a journey to Rheims for the coronation of the king. With few exceptions Rheims had seen the crowning of French kings since the time of Charlemagne, and when Charles X took the throne after the death of his elder brother Louis XVIII in 1825, he revived the practice. Rossini was commissioned to write Il Viaggio a Reims for the coronation that year, and it features nobles from various countries staying at the hotel Lys-d’Or on the way to Rheims. Rossini was hot property in France, and his later four operas, two of which were revisions of earlier work, were all in French. This one was the last in Italian.
The fact that the ETO felt able to stage it speaks highly of their vocal standards. It requires 14 soloists and its premiere included some of the greatest singers of the day. Under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny this was a musical treat in which there were moments when the singers performed without accompaniment. He brought out Rossini’s lively charm right from the start, and elicited cheers when the music accompanied the whole cast singing together. It seems unfair to mention individual singers, who all played their roles superbly, supplying a wonderful antidote to the terrifying intrigue of Lucrezia.
As befits a touring company, all three operas in this spring season use the same set, and in Lucrezia and Viaggio the designs by Adam Wiltshire, beautifully lit by Ric Mountjoy, suited each opera to perfection. In Viaggio I loved the interlude with the balloon, where the entire set seems to lift up into the clouds. If you think opera should be what the composer intended, then the ETO provides it with a light touch and no nasty surprises. Congratulations to them.
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