Saturday, 16 June 2018

Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira

Eugenia Tadolini's costume as Alzira for the 1845 premiere of Verdi's Alzira
Eugenia Tadolini's costume as Alzira for the 1845
premiere of Verdi's Alzira
This year the Buxton Festival is performing the third of its trilogy of early Verdi opera, directed by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Stephen Barlow. Whilst the previous two operas in the trilogy, Giovanna d'Arco (performed in Buxton in 2015, see my review) and the original 1847 Macbeth (performed in Buxton in 2017, see my review) are relatively rare, this year's opera Alzira is seriously unusually having been rarely performed in the UK. I recently met up with Stephen to talk about Alzira and, as it was recently announced that he is stepping down as Buxton's artistic director, we also looked back over his time in Buxton.

Stephen calls Alzira an anomaly, it was preceded by I due Foscari and Giovanna d'Arco and followed by Attila and Macbeth, yet it has been neglected. He points out that it is rather too easy to take Verdi's remarks about the opera out of context (at one point Verdi seems to have referred to it as 'ugly') and say that Verdi did not like the work. But Stephen feels that you only have to open the score to realise how unusual Alzira is.

A short opera, in its treatment of text, emotion and drama it is a very terse work, more terse than the 1847 Macbeth (which is hardly a long work). A short synopsis of the drama gives no idea of the detail filled into the libretto. In rehearsal, Stephen has been finding that they can spend so much time on three or four pages of recitative. The dynamics, text and sheer terseness give you so much to read between the lines. This means that the old sort of stand and deliver performances rather missed so much of the detail in the work.

Ben Johnson (Carlo), Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco 2015. (Photo Jonathan Keenan)
Ben Johnson, Kate Ladner and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco 2015. (Photo Jonathan Keenan)
Verdi wrote the work quickly but Stephen finds his choices of tempo and dynamics very clear and very interesting, especially if you actually observe them in performance (something that they did with the performances of Macbeth in Buxton last year). The work is hard because it is compact, but Stephen feels that anyone who lover Verdi and loves bel canto will get it.

Stephen has loved working on the piece, with a cast which includes Kate Ladner as Alzira, James Cleverton as Gusmano, Graeme Danby as Alvaro and Jung Soo Yun as Zamoro. In rehearsal they constantly keep referring to what the composer actually wrote. Stephen feels that you cannot be serious about a piece unles syou know it ll, rather than doing the version with standard cuts, and they are performing Alzira complete, with all the cabalettas.

In Macbeth Verdi was meticulous in giving metronome marks as well as tempo markings, but there are fewer metronome markings in Alzirai and Stephen had to compare the tempor markings with other places where Verdi was more specific. In these cases, it helps if you are familiar with other works of the period like Giovanna d'Arco and Macbeth. Part of the problem is that Verdi did not supervise the rehearsals for Alzira in the way that he did for Macbeth, which he rehearsed extensively.

For the choice of three works for the Verdi trilogy, Stephen and Elijah Moshinsky wanted to keep the choice within a tight time-frame of composition, in fact the years 1845 to 1847. Having decided on Giovanna d'Arco and Macbeth, the suggestion for Alzira came from one of the festival patrons, but it fitted their plans very finely, and Stephen calls the work astonishingly powerful.

Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Stephen Gadd and chorus 2017 (photo Robert Workman)
Buxton Festival - Verdi: Macbeth - Stephen Gadd and chorus 2017 (photo Robert Workman)
The festival's second own production is a deliberate contrast, Mozart's Idomeneo, a work which Stephen sees as finally finding a place in the central repertoire. And in fact so keen was he to ensure his chosen cast that Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe and Madeleine Pierard were all booked over two years ago. It will be Lowe's first major role whilst Bottone and Pierard sang in Buxton's 2017 production of Mozart's Lucio Silla [see my review].  And the title role will be sung by Paul Nilon who Stephen finds perfect for the role; it is a role which Nilon has sung in Graham Vick's production at Gothenburg Opera which was revived this season at Lithuanian Opera.

Visiting opera companies this year include La Serenissima, director Adrian Chandler, who are performing Brescianello's Tisbe (written for the Duke of Wurttemberg in Stuttgart in 1718), and Opera della Luna who are bringing a new version of Donizetti's La fille du regiment.

This year will be Stephen Barlow's last as artistic director of the festival. When I as what he is most proud of achieving, his immediate response is the building of a very wide and productive family of artists and music staff, where the work is of prime importance with a special warmth in their collaborations and a wonderful atmosphere. He is also very proud of the chorus, which he feels has been going from strength to strength. Some of the singers have been there for years, and members of the chorus get opportunities for covering roles and singing small roles. Four choriseters are doing minor principal roles in Alzira whilst Ben Thapa (who sings in the chorus) sings the role of Arbace in Idomeneo. [This year there is a chance for festival patrons to hear the covers in performances with Scenes from an opera - Alzira and Scenes from an opera - Idomeneo.]

Rimsky Korsakov: Kaschei the Immortal - Emma Selway, Owen Gilhooley, Robert Poulton - Buxton Festival 2012
Rimsky Korsakov: Kaschei the Immortal - Emma Selway, Owen Gilhooley, Robert Poulton - Buxton Festival 2012
Operatic highlights from Stephen's period at Buxton include Richard Strauss's Intermezzo, concert performances of Charpentier's Louise and Rossini's Otello, in the version which Rossini created with a mezzo-soprano singing the title role, and the double bill of Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal and Sibelius' The Maiden in the Tower.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Second View: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park conducted by George Jackson (★★★) - opera review
  • Sei solo: Bach's partitas and sonatas for violin alone from Thomas Bowles (★★★½) - CD review
  • Io la Musica son: Francesca Aspromonte in Prologue  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Aldeburgh Festival: Britten and Bernstein side by side in Suffolk (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Young Artists performance of La Traviata at Opera Holland Park (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Musical beauty: new production of Lohengrin at Covent Garden  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A little bit of magic: Miah Persson in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at Garsington Opera (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Coloured lights: Kander & Ebb's The Rink makes a triumphant return (★★★½) - musical theatre review
  • Genial conversations with old friends : I Musicanti at St John's Smith Square (★★★½) - Concert review
  • Writ Large: Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars in Spem in alium (★★★½) - Concert review
  • Home

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