Saturday 24 February 2018

Rossini: Fireworks!

Rossini Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis; Catherine Carby; John Andrews; Luciano Botelho; John-Colyn Gyeantey - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Rossini Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis; Catherine Carby; John Andrews; Luciano Botelho; John-Colyn Gyeantey - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Rossini: Fireworks!; Elena Xanthoudakis, Catherine Carby, Luciano Botelho, John-Colyn Gyeantey, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 22 2018 Star rating: 3.5
Some spectacular virtuosity and real dramatic intensity illuminate this evening of serious Rossini

Rossini Fireworks! - Elena Xanthoudakis - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Elena Xanthoudakis - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Rossini's serious operas are only slowly making their way into the opera house, and it is heartening news that English Touring Opera (ETO), having explored a number of Donizetti's more serious operas, is hoping to stage Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra (what will be the first UK staging since 1818!). As part of ETO's Spring season the company dipped its toe into Rossini's waters with Rossini: Fireworks! at the Hackney Empire (22 February 2018), an evening of arias, duets and trios from Rossini's Maometto II, Ermione, Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra, La donna del lago (four of the nine operas he wrote for Naples), plus Guillaume Tell (written for Paris), sung by Elena Xanthoudakis (soprano), Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano), Luciano Botelho and John-Colyn Gyeantey (tenor), with John Andrews conducting the ETO Orchestra.

Of course, there are reasons why Rossini's opera seria is not regularly performed, the  music is extremely difficult to perform. Rossini wrote his nine Neapolitan operas for a hand picked team of star soloists, and the Rossini revival of the last 30 years had really gone hand in hand with the re-discovery of the vocal techniques needed to be able to sing this complex music. But the operas are well worth exploring, Rossini's position in Naples gave him the luxury of being able to experiment with form and with content, so that a number of his operas are daring experiments. Part of this makes a concert like ETO's rather tricky, because individual numbers tend to be rather long as Rossini moved well away from the simple recitative and aria solution which had typified opera in the 18th century.

Rossini Fireworks! - Catherine Carby - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Catherine Carby - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
As this was a concert, the ETO Orchestra made a welcome appearance on stage at the Hackney Empire. Though fielding a substantial chamber orchestra, some of the pieces used reduced orchestrations; the orchestral provision in Naples was quite lavish.

We started with Rossini's overture to Semiramide, his final opera for Italy written just after he left Naples and something of a farewell to Isabella Colbran, the diva who had starred in all nine of his Neapolitan operas, and who had become Rossini's wife, but whose voice was in decline. This was quite a lyrical account of the overture, but not without drama too, though Andrews and his orchestra could not quite disguise the somewhat repetitive nature of Rossini's writing.

This was followed with one of the best known pieces of the evening, the Willow song from Otello sung with dignified melancholy by Catherine Carby, yet still with a taster of the vocal elaboration to come. Another well known piece was 'Sois immobile' from Guillaume Tell, a rare lyrical moment for the title role as he tells his to be quiet and brave as he shoots the arrow through the apple on the boy's head. Technically a baritone piece, John-Colyn Gyeantey sang with moving dignity.

The trio 'Inquesti estermi istanti' from Maometto II, sung by Elena Xanthoudakis, Catherine Carby and John-Colyn Gyeantey, was the first piece of really rare repertoire. Finely sung by three vibrant voices, with good attention to the coloratura, this was strong stuff but would perhaps have made more of an impression if we had had a little more musical context.

But this was more than made up for by the following scene, the Gran Scena from the Act Two of Ermione, a terrific piece of drama where Ermione (Elena Xanthoudakis) is at the end of her tether no knowing whether she loves or hates Pirro, and though a solo she is joined at one point by Oreste (Luciano Botelho). It is a big piece, and received a wonderfully vibrant performance from Xanthoudakis, who brought out the intensity of the role, and was joined by Botelho in the tricky high-lying tenor role. This was a terrific combination of drama and virtuosity.

Rossini Fireworks! - Luciano Botelho - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Luciano Botelho - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
You thought, follow that, but Catherine Carby did indeed. She brought superb technical control to Malcolm's aria 'Mura felice' from La donna del lago, starting of in a sober manner, and then dazzling with the fast passage-work which concludes the aria. Throughout the evening, Carby brought a lovely down to earth feel to her amazing vocal dexterity, coping with spectacular wide ranging parts and singing with great charm. This was virtuosity at the highest level. And I liked the care she brought to presentation, wearing a dress for female roles and changing into trousers for the travestie roles.

For the end of the first half, it was the chance for the two tenors to shine as Luciano Botelho and John-Colyn Gyeantey sang 'Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue' from Otello. This is very much one of those anything you can do I can do better sorts of duets, and the tenor writing is cruel. Tenors in Rossini's day sang with a very different technique to modern tenors, and the discovery of how to sing Rossini tenor parts with a modern technique is very much part of the Rossini revival. Both tenors sang with fearless commitment though I don't think that either has solved the conundrum of how to combine Rossini's vocal writing with modern vocal techniques. It was a shame that we could not have the following cabaletta, where Rossini has brought on Desdemona who calms the two down and things end with a terrific trio.

Rossini Fireworks! - John-Colyn Gyeantey - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
John-Colyn Gyeantey (Photo William Knight)
After the interval, Botelho and Gyeantey returned for a scene f rom Elisabetta. Hardly a conventional duet, it is an example of the way Rossini explored projecting the drama of the piece. First Botelho's Leicester had a long, complex solo scene as he bemoaned his fate in jail, and only then did Norfolk (Gyeantey) appear, full of false sympathy. Quite an unusual scene, the two brought out the terrific drama in a robust performance.

Catherine Carby then returned with another of Rossini's spectacular mezzo-soprano solos, Calbo's aria 'Non temer' from Maometto II, again with a lovely combination of virtuosity, charm and expressiveness and I certainly hope to hear her in a complete Rossini opera some time soon! Elena Xanthoudakis then returned with another aria from Guillaume Tell, Mathilde's beautifully expressive 'Sombre foret' from Act Two, a shapley elegant performance which brought out the sound of the French langauge, and the work's melancholy.

Finally, another large scale scene from Elisabetta in which Elisabetta (Catherine Carby) is demanding that Matilda (Elena Xanthoudakis) renounce her marriage to Leicester (Luciano Botelho), with a small role for Gyeantey's villainous Norfolk. Again, the structure is fluid, we started with a moving, yet elaborate duet for Carby and Xanthoudakis, before Botelho joined them for a dramatic trio, with some terrific passagework to bring the evening to a close.

Whilst we did have surtitles, which also provided a bit of background, the running order was different to that in the programme, and nor did we have a list of who was singing what. It would be perhaps have been helpful to have a detailed running order in addition to the highly informative programme.

Rossini Fireworks! - ETO Orchestra - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Rossini Fireworks! - ETO Orhestra - English Touring Opera (Photo William Knight)
Bringing of such a programme of excerpts is tricky, and some of the finer pieces did not quite count for as much as they could have done. The best moments were the longer excerpts, where singers were able to develop the drama. The real highlights were provided by Catherine Carby and Elena Xanthoudakis, but everyone brought a real sense of drama, and all were superbly supported by John Andrews and the orchestra.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood   - interview
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (****)
  • Notable recital debut disc from French Horn player Ben Golscheider - Cd review (****)
  • 18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking receives its first UK performance - Opera review (3.5 *)
  • Gerstein plays Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F - CD review (****)
  • Satyagraha: Philip Glass's opera at ENO - Opera review (****)
  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (****)
  • Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall - Concert review (****)
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Home

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