Sunday 8 July 2018

Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival

Verdi Alzira  - Luke Sinclair, Jung Soo Yun - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira  - Luke Sinclair, Jung Soo Yun - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira; Kate Ladner, Jung Soo Yun, James Cleverton, Graeme Danby, dir: Elijah Moshinsky, cond: Stephen Barlow, Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton International Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Verdi's Alzira reveals itself as full of vigour, with some striking music and fine singing

Verdi Alzira  - Kate Ladner - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Kate Ladner - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Alzira is the third of the early Verdi operas to be performed at the Buxton International Festival directed by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Stephen Barlow [see my interview with Stephen], following on from Giovanna d'Arco (2015) and the original version of Macbeth (2017). Alzira is seriously rare, one of the most neglected operas in the Verdi canon and the Buxton production, which debuted on Saturday 7 July 2018 at the Buxton Opera House, was the UK's first full staging of the work.

Kate Ladner sang the title role, with Jung Soo Yun as Zamoro, James Cleverton as Gusmano, and Graeme Danby as Alvaro. Designs were by Russell Craig, lighting by Mark Jonathan, sound design by Mic Pool, video by Stanley Orwin Fraser, and movement by Terry John Bates. Stephen Barlow conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Written for Naples in 1845, Alzira was based on a play by Voltaire set in Spanish colonial Latin America, with Voltaire using the setting to examine philosophical questions regarding the colonisers behaving like savages yet calling the indigenous peoples savages. Librettist Salvatore Cammarano stripped out all the philosophy and left a piece which is highly compact (the Buxton production lasted two hours including the interval). We have little time for development, the characters are introduced and the plot hurtles towards its conclusion with remarkable vitality and dynamism.

The plot is a relatively straight-forward love triangle: Gusmano (James Cleverton) is Spanish governor of Peru, taking over from his father, Alvaro (Graeme Danby). Gusmano is hated by the Incas Peruvians, but he declares an amnesty and plans to seal it with marriage to Alzira (Kate Ladner), daughter of an Inca tribe leader, Atalba (Phl Wilcox). But Alzira is in love with an Inca, Zamoro (Jung Soo Yun), who died in an uprising. Complications arise, Alvaro is taken prisoner by the Incas yet freed on the orders of Zamoro (who is in fact not dead) to show the Spanish that the Incas are not savages. Zamoro's return to Alvira gives them a moment of joy, then sends Gusmano over the edge with jealousy and Act One ends with Zamoro's Inca troops fighting with the Spanish. In Act Two Gusmano forces Alzira to marry him by making it a condition for sparing Zamoro's life. In true tenor fashion, Zamoro leaps to the wrong conclusion and there is a violent denoument when he kills Gusmano at the wedding. On his deathbed, Gusmano has a remarkable conversion and wishes everyone to live in peace.

Verdi Alzira  - James Cleverton, Graeme Danby - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira  - James Cleverton, Graeme Danby - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi sets this in apparently traditional fashion, tenor Zamoro (Jung Soo Yun), baritone Gusmano (James Cleverton) and soprano Alzira (Kate Ladner) each have a double aria (cavatina and caballetta) for their entrance, there is then a duet for soprano and tenor (Yun and Ladner) again in double aria format, and then the ensemble finale. Act Two is similarly traditional, except there is no aria for the soprano, only a duet with the baritone. But within this there are all sorts of quirks, and Verdi is far more responsive to the meaning of the text, than the form really allows him. This is an experimental work, one of a number at the period, none of which are in the regular Verdi canon but which helped him along the route. In Rigoletto, Verdi would stretch the double aria form to its limit, and ultimately abandonit. Alzira is a fascinating study in Verdi's working out solutions.

Verdi Alzira  - Graeme Danby - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Graeme Danby (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Elijah Moshinsky and Russell Craig set the piece in a Latin American country in the fairly recent past, with the two groups ('Spanish' and 'Incas') as rivals in a bitter war (having recently been reading Joan Didion's Salvador I immediately thought of that country). Craig's designs were full of vibrant colours, with simple moving screens having video projected on them, and the sounds of the Amazonian jungle mixed into the sound-scape too. The result matched the vibrancy and colour of Verdi's score, and Moshinsky's production ensured we knew who was whom and which side they were on. There was an element of humour too, with the fighting which concludes Act One being staged with tongue firmly in cheek (but then Verdi's music at this point is hardly vicious).

Kate Ladner made a strong heroine, dreaming of one man and being forced to marry another. It is a role which requires a mixture of power and flexibility, and Ladner brought an expressive sense of firm line combined with fearlessness and a nice agility. She took a little time to warm up in her opening aria where she is dreaming of Zamoro. We then only hear her in duets and ensembles, but she and Jung Soo Yun made the recognition duet rather striking, and Ladner's duet in Act Two with James Cleverton was rather moving, as Alzira struggles with the choice between Zamoro's death or her marriage to Gusmano.

Verdi Alzira  - James Cleverton, Jung Soo Yung - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
James Cleverton, Jung Soo Yung - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Jung Soo Yun made a highly impressive Zamoro, singing with a lovely dark even tone and firm line, and willingness to sing quietly. In relative terms it is a big role, with two arias and a duet, and Jung Soo Yun really made these count, his Act Two aria included a powerfully expressive Cavatina which is followed by an explosion when he realises that Alzira is getting married to Gusmano.

Gusmano combines a civilised exterior with a vicious streak and an obsessive jealousy when it comes to Alizara. James Cleverton ably conveyed this, moving his first aria from platitude about peace to obession with Alzira, and turning the screw on Kate Ladner's Alzira in their Act Two duet. Cleverton has developed into a fine Verdi baritone, singing with a shapely sense of well filled line, combining power and flexibility with fearlessness when it comes to the top. Whilst Gusmano's death-bed conversion is a little difficult to make convincing, there is no doubt at all of the beauty with which Cleverton sang the aria, convincing us with sheer expressive technique. I certainly hope to hear James Cleverton in further Verdi roles.

Graeme Danby, as Gusmano's father, had an important role to play in the plot and was needed in the ensembles, yet he is denied a solo of his own. That said, the moment during the Act One finale when he pleads with his son (James Cleverton) for Zamoro's life was a moving moment, rendered all the more striking by being finely sung by the two singers, baritone and bass.

The smaller roles all played a strong part in the drama, with Brian McNamee as Ovando (here made a Jesuit priest), Phil Wilcox as Alzira's father, Helen Bailey as Alzira's maid and Luke Sinclair as an American helping the rebels.

There was plenty for the chorus to do in this piece, and they did so with vitality and enthusiam. In the piece Stephen Barlow drew out the fascinating colours and textures of the piece. It might be highly compressed, but Verdi's music is certainly not neglgible and we heard a myriad of ideas coming out the pit, finely played by the Northern Chamber Orchestra. It certainly helps having this music played on a scale that Verdi might have expected; this was a performance full of fine detail. We also heard what Verdi wrote, so all the cabaletta repeats were present, and there were no interpolated high notes.

Verdi Alzira  -  Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira  -  Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi's Alzira is never going to be a main-stream piece, but this production from Buxton showed that it is full of good things and that, in the right hands, it can be a rip-roaring evening.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra - Interview
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen (★★★★★) - Cd review
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Russian Romantics: music for violin & piano by Glinka, Glazunov, Cui, Rubenstein, & more (★★★) - CD review
  • Powerful & emotional stuff: Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at RCM Double Bill - Opera review
  • What a delightful voice: getting to know the music of Francesco Gasparini (★★★★) - CD review
  • Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera  (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo  - interview
  • Home

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