Monday 4 March 2019

Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini Elizabeth I (Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra); Mary Plazas, Luciano Botelho, John-Colyn Gyeantey, dir: James Conway, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Moments of real fire in Rossini's first opera for Naples, hampered by a poor libretto

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - Mary Plazas - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Mary Plazas - (© Richard Hubert Smith)
English Touring Opera (ETO) is certainly not lacking in ambition, the company's latest season features Mozart's Idomeneo, Verdi's Macbeth and opened on Saturday 2 March 2019 at the Hackney Empire with Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra (playing as Elizabeth I), the opera with which the young Rossini (age 22) stormed Naples. ETO's production was directed by James Conway and conducted by John Andrews with Mary Plazas as Elisabetta, Luciano Botelho as the Earl of Leciester, John-Colyn Gyeantey as the Duke of Norfolk, Lucy Hall as Matilde, Emma Stannard as Enrico and Joseph Doody as Guglielmo.

Rossini wrote nine operas for the Royal theatre in Naples, each in its way innovative and pushing boundaries, taking advantage of the large and well funded company, as well as a roster of distinguished singers centred round the soprano Isabella Colbran, along with a sequence of star tenors. In these operas Rossini would lay the foundations for much of Italian 19th century opera, yet they remain rarely done. The circumstances of their creation with the spectacular technical effects Rossini created for his singers means casting is tricky. Elisabetta is not Rossini's most innovative opera, but it was his first for Naples and he needed something big and showy to win over the cabals against him, and win them over he did. Though, like Handel with Rinaldo (his first opera for London), Rossini re-uses material from other operas as a showcase for his art.

The opera does have one major innovation, for the first time Rossini entirely ditched secco recitative (sung dialogue accompanied only by keyboard, or a small continuo group), and wrote fully orchestral accompanied recitative, a style the Neapolitans had grown accustomed to under the Napoleonic occupation of Naples.

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - Luciano Botelho - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Luciano Botelho - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Elisabetta was always going to be a stretch for a company the size of ETO, casting roles sung by Isabella Colbran, Manuel Garcia and Andrea Nozzari, and taking them round the country (ETO's production visits eight more venues across the UK after Hackney as part of the 21 venue Spring tour). But ETO has given us strong Handel and Donizetti productions so adding Rossini to the roster is very welcome. There were signs on Saturday that the performance needs a bit of time to settle properly, but ETO has found a cast which was certainly able to make a strong case for this music.

Central to this was the stunning performance of Mary Plazas as the aging Queen Elizabeth I. This is the diva role, she gets to close the show with a bravura Rondo. If you can ignore the libretto's historical solecisms then the role of Elisabetta has some cracking moments as the plot shows her struggling with public regality and private feelings, Mary Plazas made Rossini's elaborate vocal writing count as emotional drama, she had the ability to really snap it out when needed. Perhaps the passagework was not always pinpoint, but Plazas showed us how to create drama out of this technical display.

The plot is not dissimilar to Donizetti's Roberto Devereux only Leicester (Luciano Botelho) is here in love with and married to Matilde (Lucy Hall) Mary Queen of Scots' daughter (yes, really). Luciano Botelho brought his lovely dark burnished sound to bear on a role written for the great Andrea Nozzari (whose voice had a baritonal quality), Botelho also showed fined technical skill and made is really care in the Act Two prison scene. But it was in the duets and ensembles where Leicester came over, particularly the terrific Terzetto between him, and the two women in his life Elisabetta and Matilde.

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - John-Colyn Gyeantey - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Norfolk (John-Colyn Gyeantey) is an interesting role, eaten up with jealously of Leicester's populartiy from the opening, acting as a false friend and ending up himself falling foul of Elisabetta. John-Colyn Gyeantey's performance took some time to settle, and the high tessitura of his opening seemed to challenge him, but Gyeantey brought a fine sense of character to Norfolk's scheming, particularly in his Act II aria.

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - Lucy Hall, Emma Stannard - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Lucy Hall, Emma Stannard - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
But the role also highlighted the opera's weakness, frankly the libretto is rather poor and the role of Norfolk is badly set up, so much of Act One is rather woolly in dramatic terms whilst Act Two relies on generic genres like the prison scene. Add to this that Rossini had not written such extensive orchestral recitative before, so sometimes the dialogue felt clunky. So it needed the strong input of the singers to make the moments catch fire, and you feel the drama will develop more as the production matures.

Lucy Hall was quite a find as Matilde, she brought style and power to Matilde's one aria (in Act One), and certainly held her own against Mary Plaza's strong Elisabetta in the Act Two duet and terzetto. I certainly hope we hear more of her in the repertoire.

Emma Stannard provided strong support in the smaller role of Enrico, Matilde's brother, whilst Joseph Doody (a member of the chorus) made a striking Guglielmo (Elisabetta's secretary). Both sang with confident style.

James Conway's production was admirably non-interventionist, and the simple designs by Frankie Bradshaw relied very much on the striking period costumes (albeit with chinos for the men) for their effect. Conway used the chorus (dressed all in black, but each singer in a different outfit)  as mobile scenery, an effect which looked a little over deliberate (and perhaps under rehearsed). The production did not manage to disguise the way the drama sagged in Act One, but when singers and music took control then things took off such is in the Act One finale and much of Act Two.

The chorus has quite a bit role in the opera, and the young singers certainly seized their opportunities. The orchestra got off to something of an uneven start, though it didn't help that they were playing some of Rossini's best known music - the overture recycles that of Aureliano in Palmira and would in turn be recycled the following year for The Barber of Seville! But this must be a largely unfamiliar score, and the performance came together admirably, and conductor John Andrews knows how to accompany Italian bel canto sympathetically.

For all their technical innovations, not all of Rossini's serious operas work well as dramas and I can't help wishing that ETO had chose one of the other Neapolitan operas. The plot of Elisabetta does rather require some special pleading, but Saturday's performance had some moments of real fire which showed Rossini taking off as a musical dramatist, and you felt that singers and performers starting to get to grips with this relatively unfamiliar style.

Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - chorus - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra - chorus - ETO (© Richard Hubert Smith)
ETO's season in Hackney continues with Idomeneo (8/3/2019) and Macbeth (9/3/2019), see website for details.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Home

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