Wednesday 19 September 2018

The other Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera's revival of Isouard's Cendrillon

Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Susanne Dymott, Benjamin Durrant, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Susanne Dymott, Benjamin Durrant, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Nicolo Isouard Cendrillon; Kate Howden, Aoife O'Sullivan, Jenny Stafford, Nicholas Merryweather, Bradley Smith, Benjamin Durrant, Alistair Ollerenshaw, dir: Jeremy Gray, Chroma, cond: Harry Sever Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A Cinderella opera-comique from a French Maltese composer is an intriguing re-discovery from Bampton

Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Kate Howden - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Kate Howden
Bampton Classical Opera
Nicolo Isouard (1775-1818) is not a well known name and Bampton Classical Opera's performances of his opera Cendrillon this Summer were probably the work's UK premiere. The company brought the opera to St John's Smith Square on Tuesday 18 September 2018 in a production directed and designed by Jeremy Gray with costumes by Jess Iliff. Kate Howden played Cendrillon with Aoife O'Sullivan and Jenny Stafford as her step-sisters, Clorinde and Tisbe, Alistair Ollerenshaw as her step-father, the Baron, Nicholas Merryweather as Alidor, Bradley Smith as Prince Ramir and Benjamin Durrant as Dandini. Harry Sever conducted Chroma. The work was sung in an English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray.

Isouard was of French-Maltese descent and studied in Malta, Paris, Palermo and Naples, eventually ending up in Paris where he wrote a series of operas, mainly opera comique with spoken dialogue. Cendrillon (1810) was one of his major successes. If the plot of the opera seems rather familiar (no fairy godmother, no step-mother, the step-sisters are not that ugly, the prince has a tutor and swaps places with his squire Dandini) this is because Rossini and his librettist lifted much of the plot for La Cenerentola from Isouard and Charles Guillaume Etienne's opera.

It is a charming, well made piece. Cendrillon, the prince, Clorinde and Tisbe each get solos but the main engine of the music is a series of duets, six in all, plus a trio and a quartet. Isouard's music is melodious and lyrical, with a nice line in melancholy for the title role. His depiction of the sisters is not that sharp, and at times they seem almost sympathetic. He uses two tenors, for the Prince and for Dandini, and whilst the Prince gets his own melancholy romance (about the inability to find a bride who loves him), Dandini is quite a lively character. Alidor remains a bit mysterious, involving himself, disguised as a beggar, in Cendrillon's life and apparently using magic to effect her transformation but that is never explained.

One of the problems with the work is that it simply is not La Cenerentola, and you rather missed the pace, liveliness and character of Rossini's opera. It might have been better if Bampton had chosen one of Isouard's other operas, so we had nothing to compare it to.

Isouard: Cendrillon - Kate Howden, Alistair Aollerenshaw, Bradley Smith - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Kate Howden, Alistair Aollerenshaw, Bradley Smith
Bampton Classical Opera
I rather regretted the loss of the original French, there is something about the combination of sung French in music of this period which is very appealing and the style of the music is allied to the sound of the language. Perhaps it would have helped if the cast had been able to get the words of the translation over, but even from the eighth row it was difficult to understand what was being sung.

The young cast gave us a creditable account of the music, singing Isouard's lines with a nice fluidity. Kate Howden made quite a serious and engaging Cendrillon, with Aoife O'Sullivan and Jenny Stafford making the most of their opportunities as her sisters. The Baron is quite a small role, no solo but an important part of the drama and Alistair Ollerenshaw was perhaps rather too charming for such an ogre. Nicholas Merryweather was a striking Alidor, managing his transformations into a beggar with aplomb and keeping an aura of mystery. Bradley Smith displayed a pleasing lyric tenor and easy public school charm as the Prince whilst Benjamin Durrant had a whale of a time as Dandini acting up as the Prince.

The hard working chorus was provided by Lucy Cronin and Susanne Dymott, one of whom doubled as the Sandman in the dance sequences, with Benjamin Durrant and Alistair Ollerenshaw providing the tenor and bass parts to the choruses.

Harry Sever conducted Chroma hidden behind a screen at the back of the stage, communicating with the cast via monitors. This was not an ideal set-up, and whilst it worked effectively enough you felt that a little stiffness in the performance might have come from Sever's lack of direct communication with his cast. Chroma played creditably, but there was a sense that the instrumentalists did not have this relatively fragile style in their bones. Isouard's orchestrations need a shimmer which was only fitfully present.

Isouard: Cendrillon - Kate Howden, Aoife O'Sullivan, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Kate Howden, Aoife O'Sullivan, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Jeremy Gray's production was lively and imaginative. All grey for the first half and exploding into a riot of pink in the second. Jess Iliff had certainly had fun with the costumes, and I was particularly struck by Dandini's alarmingly pink flowered velvet suit, though many of the men's suits seemed to have been chosen half a size too small.

When Bizet's Carmen was premiered at the Opera Comique in 1875, one of the problems with that work was that it was not something that families could take their daughter and prospective son-in-law to, and this was one of the social aspects of the Opera Comique. Isouard's Cendrillon was certainly suitable for this usage; it charmed and flowed easily. Yet I found myself wanting a bit of grit and wit, and certainly found his pacing rather leisurely. It was interesting and illuminating to encounter the opera and I must commend Bampton Classical Opera for their continuing mission to search out lesser known pieces from this period, though this time I am not certain they have found a gem.

Recommended recordings:  There are two recordings of the work, both recorded live. The most recent is from Manhattan School of Music, conducted by Pierre Vallet and only seems available as an import. The other, recorded in 1998 on the Olympia label, is conducted by Richard Bonynge but seems currently unavailable.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • More than just Haydn: cultural revival at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt  - feature
  • Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front at Herbst Gold in Eisenstadt (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy (★★★★) - Opera review
  • From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra  - interview
  • Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes  - interview
  • In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa - feature
  • Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Distracting opera for distracted times: The Second Violinist (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc  - feature
  • An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting Enchanted Island from British Youth Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony - interview
  •  Home

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