Monday 29 February 2016

Dramatic involvement - Verdi's Il Trovatore from Chelsea Opera Group

Sally Silver, with Andrew Greenwood and Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore - photo Robert Workman
Sally Silver, with Andrew Greenwood and Chelsea Opera Group
in Verdi's Il Trovatore, photo Robert Workman
Verdi Il Trovatore; Sally Silver, Jonathan Stoughton, Marianne Cornetti, Roland Wood, Jihoon Kim, cond: Andrew Greenwood; Chelsea Opera Group at the Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Dramatic involvement and interesting role debuts in one of Verdi's best known operas

Chelsea Opera Group is known for its performances of more infrequently performed works, but occasionally the group turns its attention to the more well known repertoire. On Sunday 28 February 2016 at the Cadogan Hall, Andrew Greenwood conducted the Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore, with Sally Silver as Leonora, Jonathan Stoughton as Manrico, Roland Wood as il Conte di Luna and Marianne Cornetti as Azucena, plus Jihoon Kim as Ferrando, Natasha Jouhl as Ines and Samuel Smith as Ruiz. The interest of the performance lay partly in the fact that two of the principals, Sally Silver and Jonathan Stoughton, were new to their roles, whilst the two more, Roland Wood and Marianne Cornetti have stage experience of their roles.

Marianne Cornetti and Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatore - photo Robert Workman
Marianne Cornetti & Chelsea Opera Group in Verdi's Il Trovatorephoto Robert Workman
Verdi's Il trovatore was written in 1853, just nine years after Donizetti's final opera for Italy, Caterina Cornaro, premiered. And whilst Verdi was interested in moving away from cavatinas and cabalettas, the libretto which Salvadore Cammarano delivered for Il trovatore was full of traditional construction, so that for all its intense, personal drama and harmonic complexity Verdi's music has something of a Donizettian cast. Whilst the soprano singing Leonora needs to sing with more bite than in a Donizetti role, a sympathy for that style of writing is necessary.

Sally Silver has sung lighter Verdi roles such as Gilda (Rigoletto) and the title role in La traviata, but she is also associated with singing the bel canto repertoire and sang Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda for Chelsea Opera Group. She does not have the sort of plush, well-upholstered voice of a Leontyne Price; instead she sings with a superb sense of line, great elegance and a fine grasp of the Donizettian cast of much of the fioriture. This meant that the Act One cavatina Tacea la notte placida  was expressively plangent, whilst the caballeta Di tale amore was finely accurate whilst giving the music a necessary heft. This latter was noticeable in the ensembles, where Silver was clearly no lightweight. Occasionally there was a sense perhaps that she pushed her top register a little to much, bringing on a hardness, but this could easily have been a touch of nerves and we certainly had some fine acuti. The overall cast of her performance was intense and plangent, with the sense of vibrant line bringing out the music's shape. The opening scene of Act Four, with the famous Miserere was strongly expressive, crowned with a fine death scene at the end of the act.

Jonathan Stoughton has sung Siegfried in Wagner's Gotterdammerung at Longborough and is making a name for himself in the youthful helden-tenor stakes. The role of Manrico is a tricky one, it requires a real spinto tenor (and those have always been rare), combining lyrical vibrancy with just the right heft. And of course, it doesn't help that the role's big test, Di quella pira, doesn't come until the third act. With his long hair and beard, Stoughton piratical figure on stage and once he relaxed he contributed some finely dramatic singing. Unfortunately it was only after Di quella pira that he really relaxed. In his final scene with Marianne Cornetti's Azucena he gave us a fine combination of firm dramatic tone, and vibrant line as well as responding to the brilliant dramatic involvement from Cornetti. Earlier on his contribution was more variable, perhaps careful is the right word. Too often his performance simply lacked the sense of bravura elan which the role needs. All the notes were there, albeit with a very English style jugend dramatisch voice without a significant Italian ping, but only with Di quella pira did we seem him really stand an deliver to the audience.

Marianne Cornetti is an experienced Azucena and her stage persona is rather larger than life. This worked well in Il Trovatore where the role is sometimes underplayed, whilst Verdi intended it to be the centre of the opera (he was thinking of naming the opera after her character). Cornetti sang completely without a score and was fully dramatically involved throughout. She really brought out the strangeness and intensity of the character, and made her not a little mesmerising. Cornetti's is a big voice, with an upper register which is vividly dramatic yet she manages it well and moved it around all the fast passages with impressive east. Stride la vampa really knocked the drama to another left, as it should, whilst her later appearances did not disappoint. One real highlight was the scene which opens Act Three, where Azucena is captured by di Luna and Ferrando. Here the fact that Roland Wood, Marianne Cornetti and Jihoon Kim (as Ferrando) had stage experience meant that the scene was brought to dramatic life. And as I have said, Cornetti had an equally galvanising effect on the final scene and made the curiously perfunctory ending really tell.

Roland Wood has sung il Conte di Luna for Scottish Opera, and like Marianne Cornetti, he completely sang off the book. I would not quite describe Wood's voice as a traditional Verdi baritone, but it brought great musical intelligence to the role and clear dramatic involvement and commitment. It is a bit easy for di Luna to simply come on and snarl and then go off again, but Wood brought out the really conflicted nature of the role. He also gave us some great singing, bring out a vibrantly intense sense of the Verdian line in Il balen as well as conveying the character's obsession with Leonora. The high-lying nature of some of the writing clearly holds no terrors and his performance was at times really thrilling, as well as being viscerally dramatic from beginning to end.

Jihoon Kim's Ferrando was also fully dramatically involved. Ferrando's role in the drama is essentially to fill the audience in with the bits they miss. So Ferrando narrates the opening back story, and has a similar role in Act Three, reporting on Azucena's capture. With his wonderfully black voice, Kim brought a sense of depth to the music and a sense of dramatic involvement which really brought scenes like the tricky opening narration to life.

The supporting roles are very much that. Neither Ines nor Ruiz get much to do, but both Natasha Jouhl and Samuel Smith performed creditably and interacted well with the principals, and I hope that we see more of them. Two small roles were admirably cast from members of the chorus, Ken Lewis as Un Zingaro, and Rory Mulchrone as Un Messo.

Whatever my occasional musical strictures about the musical performance, there was an admirable sense of dramatic interaction between all of the principals. This was certainly no 'stand and sing' concert performance. Though using music (and with a vocal score which clearly would not stay open at the correct page) Sally Silver took real pains to bring a sense of dramatic involvement with the others and with the audience. Jonathan Stoughton also created a clear sense of involvement with his fellows. The result was a real sense of the drama of the work, and the long applause at the end was rightly deserved.

With a cast whose experience of the work varied widely, Andrew Greenwood was a wonderfully capable and unflappable centred sense of sympathetic control in the performance. He drew finely sophisticated playing from the orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group, which was on strong form bringing a lovely sense of swing and sweeping line to the music. Of course, the opera is also famous for two of Verdi's best known choruses. The chorus was on stronger and firmer form than in some years, and whilst the singers did not always achieve a uniformity of attack at the beginings of phrases, they brought out the big choruses with a lovely sense of long line as well as their familiar sense enthusiastic involvement.

Despite its popularity and familiarity, Il trovatore is an enormously difficult opera to bring off. And, compared to La Traviata and Rigoletto, I have seen far more failed performances than successful ones. Perhaps it is the music's very Janus-like sense of looking back as well as forward that makes things difficult. Few companies nowadays manage to bring together a completely idiomatic cast, and it is to Chelsea Opera Group's credit that the drew together four principals into a dramatic whole that was far, far more than just creditable.

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  1. I agree with this well written review. Overall I liked it. Not loved it but liked it. Cornetti was great and you can see why she is in demand around the world. Silver was nice it took a little time for her but when did it was a lovely sound. Our tenor here was not my cup of tea and was under the notes until after near the end. Sorry I have been spoilt over the years with Manrico's. Our Count listens to a lot of Sherril Miles but he was good and although sometimes forced he added drama to the role. Kim was really good and I wish him well with his career. Overall I enjoyed it Cornetti stood out but singers of this calibre will. Well done Chelsea Opera it was an enjoyable evening.

  2. Commenting as an enthusiastic opera goer but without a critic's ear, I was immensely impressed with last night's performance. The two lead females just blasted me away in the 2nd row, such was the gusto of their singing (this opera doesn't offer much in the way of tenderness IMO). Whilst Manrico mainly hit the notes, he lacked a little at the bottom of the scale and maybe this role needs a bit more power, however his high notes in Di quella pira were bang on and sustained. I just loved the consistent snarly face of the count too.

    Like I said, I'm no critic, just an amateur fan. I've seen the COG perform Verdi twice - last time was Ernani - and both operas have a similar feel to them so maybe I'll try something very different next time however I definitely recommend them if you love your opera at a fair price.


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