Friday 10 November 2023

Never a dull moment: Edward Lambert's Masque of Vengeance, a taut and driven new opera based on Thomas Middleton's 17th-century play, The Revenger's Tragedy

Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance; The Music Troupe, David Edwards; The Cockpit
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 9 November 2023

Based on a Thomas Middleton play from 17th century, Edward Lambert's new opera proves to be pacey, and exciting production, with an excellent and committed cast 

Composer Edward Lambert and his company, The Music Troupe presented Lambert's new opera, Masque of Vengeance, at the Cockpit Theatre from 7 9 November 2023, directed by David Edwards with Lelia Zanette, Charles Johnston, Francis Gush, Lawrence Thackeray, Will Diggle, Mae Heydorn,  Laure Meloy, Christopher Foster and Madeline Robinson, plus Alex Norton and Adrian Salinero on piano.

The opera is based on Thomas Middleton's 1606 play, The Revenger's Tragedy. Set in a fictitious Italian court, Middleton's farcical play pits ambitious factions against each other in a backstabbing bloodbath of revenge and trickery worthy of an episode of Game of Thrones

In adapting the text into his opera, prolific composer Edward Lambert has trimmed a dozen minor characters, extended the importance of the female roles and compressed the action into a taut and driven eighty minutes in which there is very little dead time. Powered along by a dynamic, pulsating score for piano duet, with soaring bel canto vocals and dramatic recitatives, there was never a dull moment to be experienced.

Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Opening the drama, mezzo Leila Zanette (in her double role of Vindicio and Caria) was the main protagonist and instigator of the action, and her voice, with clear diction, strong characterisation and a ringing, dramatic head register seemed well suited to the devious and deceptive nature of her role as an obsessed agent of revenge. Equally convincing in his obsessive ambition, and lust for his stepmother, tenor Lawrence Thackeray was an outstanding and lecherous Spurio, the king's illegitimate son, allowing the naturally darker tones of his voice to colour his lines with a real hint of his character's dark desires.

Soaring above the rest of the cast, both vocally and morally, soprano Madeline Robinson in the role of Virginia delivered purity both of tone and character, with acting ability the equal of her remarkable vocal talents. Swedish contralto Mae Heydorn, in the role of her mother Gratiana, provided gravity and Wagnerian presence whenever she was on stage, providing one of the absolute highlights of the opera in her 4th scene trio with Robinson and Zanetta, a masterful display of vocal counterpoint, emotion and impassioned musicality.

The countertenor Francis Gush, playing the role of the Prince, delighted with his boyish charm and vocal pyrotechnics, dancing the lyrics through cascading filigrees of notes with offhand elegance contrasted with soaring lines sung with limpid lyricism and more than enough charisma and style for a couple of slight slips to be forgiven. 

The large cast and rapid movement of the action somewhat constricted the roles of the King and Antonio but Charles Johnston in the former role delivered a strong, stern performance, with a commanding presence and a melodramatic, drawn-out and bloody death scene, which nevertheless provided a good measure of pathos. By way of contrast, the unrepentant villain Vacuo, sung by the exciting young tenor Will Diggle, was much less likeable, and despite his heroic and dramatic vocal delivery, his equally dramatic death scene elicited far less sympathy.

Enlivened by the excellent, committed cast, and the clear, purposeful stage directions, this was a pacey, exciting production with a real sense of momentum building through the various set pieces towards the thrilling, and extremely bloody, climaxes. Lambert's stated aims, to create an Italian opera, a classical opera, were clearly followed through, with definite divisions of the music into arias, duets, and wonderfully complicated and polyphonic finales, such as one might find in the works of Rossini or in Mozart's da Ponte operas. 

Filled with driving, relentless repeated chordal figures twisted into syncopated dance rhythms, the music for the piano duet at times seemed to conjure the spirit of Phillip Glass, and then to present grimly twisted parodies of baroque dance forms. Another resounding success from the ever-busier pen of Edward Lambert, and certainly a work deserving a wider audience and repeated staging. 

Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Masque of Vengeance - The Music Troupe (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

The production is touring to Manchester's Stoller Hall on Sunday 12 November and it's well worth catching if you can.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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